December 18, 2014

Saving Butterflies

 

PHOTO BY JOHN SIPPLE, 2012©

Saving Butterflies

“Rare species can be normal or it can be an indicator of decline,” says Dr. Jana Johnson, a biology professor and founder of the Butterfly Project, a center for endangered butterfly propagation and research at America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College.

Studying butterflies must be the perfect job. They’re so beautiful, so free… and going extinct.

“Butterflies are our canary in the coal mine,” says Dr. Jana Johnson, biology professor and founder of the Butterfly Project, a center for endangered butterfly propagation and research at America’s Teaching Zoo at Moorpark College. “We are seeing a crash in all our butterflies and one cause is global warming, or as I call it, global chaos. Let’s call it what it is.”

Johnson was guest speaker at the Mountain Mermaid, a butterfly waystation itself, on Sept. 19, to raise public awareness of “The Dangerous World of Butterflies” (also the title of a book by Peter Laufer).

Her focus is on three federally listed endangered species: The Palos Verde Blue, thought to be extinct for a decade; Lange’s Metalmark, on the brink of extinction; and the threatened Laguna Mountains Skipper.

Through her captive breeding program, she helped the Palos Verdes blue butterfly population grow from 200 to 10,000 in three years.

Lange’s Metalmark lived in the dunes of what is now Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge near San Francisco. The dunes were used to make bricks since the 1850s and eventually removed for development. Exotic grasses soon pushed out the buckwheat plant they lived and bred on.

“There are 27 there this year and if we didn’t release them, they would have been extinct,” Johnson notes. The larva, half the size of an eyelash, are laid in September and hatch in January.

The Laguna Mountains Skipper is a small (3 cm wingspan) member of the Hesperiidae (skipper) family and is only known in higher elevation areas of southern California (around San Diego). Its decline may be due to the decreasing abundance of their host plant, Cleveland’s horkelia.

Four surveys in the Laguna Mountains between 1994 and 2000 did not record more than two adults in any single year and no individuals were found in the 1999 survey. Estimates for the Palomar Mountains are that the skipper seems to be holding its own but at low numbers.

Johnson says there are many rare species in the world. “Rarity can be normal or it can be an indicator of decline,” she says. “Common butterflies can live anywhere and eat anywhere; it can be normal to be rare. These butterflies were always small and they only eat one plant, but they have built-in adapters, which is why we can rescue them.”

The Butterfly Project works in conjunction with The Urban Wildlands Group (urbanwildlands.org) that is dedicated to the protection of species, habitats, and ecological processes in urban and urbanizing areas.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Dr. Johnson suggests that anyone can do something to save the butterflies. “The Butterfly Project needs you!” she says, and suggests the following:

• Vote smart on policy, be active in your community.

• Limit the use of “–icides”.

• Plant a 7-11 rest-stop for butterflies passing through on their migration.

• Plant a nursery. If your plants are chewed up, it means you did a GREAT job.

• Plant wisely.

• Be part of a solution.