In 2003 the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service prepared a recovery plan for the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). This 293-page document aims to restore and repopulate this small species of butterfly. The recovery plan anticipates a full recovery of the species by 2023. Now, only four years away from this target deadline, we check in on how this insect is recuperating.
The Karner blue butterfly is a tiny butterfly, measuring only about one inch across. Once found from Maine to Minnesota, today their population exists in small pockets across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada. Male butterflies have dark silver-blue wings with a black border, while the females are more silver-ish brown in color with orange spots. While once so prominent in much of the Midwest, in 1995 there were fewer than 50 individual butterflies left. The most likely cause for such a population decline is attributed to how specialized the species is.
Karner blues are dependent on the flower wild lupine. So much so, that their annual life cycles are precisely tied to that of the lupine. Lupine is a perennial plant that belongs to the pea family. Requiring dry, sandy habitats, wild lupine primarily exists in open, wooded oak savannas and pine barrens. This habitat type is strongly fire-dependent, meaning the plants and vegetation of this community rely on fire disturbance to strengthen or enhance itself. Without this natural disturbance, lupine can get shaded out and will yield to the more competitive shrubs or trees.
Much like the relationship between monarch and milkweed, Karner blue butterfly larvae will only feed on the leaves of wild lupine. Therefore, the survival of lupine is instrumental in the survival of the Karner blue. In mid-April wild lupine begins to sprout, forming blue flowering stalks. The first generation of butterflies hatches and begins to feed on the lupine. By the lupine’s flowering period in late May-early June, these first-generation butterflies have now metamorphized into mature adults and will lay their eggs. The second-generation larvae will feed through late July. The activities of wild lupine and the Karner blue butterfly lasts for about four months in total.
Not only do Karner blue butterflies have a critical relationship with that of the wild lupine, they also have a mutualistic relationship with mound-building ants of the forest. In their larval stage, Karner blues are protected from threatening predators and parasites by these ants. In exchange, the young caterpillars excrete a sugary substance that the ants can eat.
While the butterfly depends on lupine and the lupine depends on open pine barrens, these barrens are hard to find! Their sandy soils are often too acidic to cultivate agricultural crops, and the openness of the land made it easy for settlers to clear for housing developments and buildings. This, along with the fact that wildfire is feared and often suppressed, is the perfect recipe to lose pine barren habitat and with them, lupine and the Karner blue butterfly.
Some of the recovery plan objectives include deliberate fire disturbance, habitat preservation of lupine corridors that remain, selective timber cuts to open the forest canopy for lupine to flourish, and even captive rearing or translocation of the butterflies. A guide put out by the Toledo Zoo has detailed instruction on how to successfully propagate the Karner blue butterfly and their host plant, lupine. Plans for these captive breeding colonies to be released into the wild will continue over the next few years.
While state and federal agencies do their part in conservation of the Karner blue, what can you do to help? Learn more about this threatened species and understand how they interact with their specific habitat type.
- Learn more about this threatened species and understand how they interact with their specific habitat type.
- Educate others on the importance of fire disturbance in fire-dependent habitats
- Encourage the growth of public or private patches of lupine
- Volunteer with nearby zoos, nature centers, conservation districts, or other groups that may be assisting in the captive breeding programs, or local habitat work such as prescribed burns.
- Plant your own native plants to attract butterflies and other pollinators
Hopefully the efforts of numerous dedicated professionals and the public will result in the return of a stable Karner blue butterfly population to the Great Lakes Region once again.
Did you know some habitats actually NEED wildfire in order to survive?
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