Source: Sherman Publications

Endangered butterfly off to Minnesota zoo

by Mary Keck

July 11, 2012

The Minnesota Zoo collected about 200 rare butterfly eggs from the Prairie Fens in Springfield Township on Friday, June 29.

The Powsheik Skipperling, a brown butterfly with orange-tipped wings, is on the Michigan threatened species list and is currently a candidate for the Federal endangered species list.

“Population numbers are declining rapidly,” Conservation Scientist David Cuthrell said.

While the reasons for the reduced population remain a mystery, Cuthrell believes it may be due to “drought, disease, [land] management, or soy bean aphid spraying.”

Although there aren’t many of these butterflies left in other parts of the United States, Powsheiks are making a comeback in Springfield, which has the largest population of Powshiek Skipperlings in the world. Their success in the region is due in part to the abundance of prairie fens, which is the butterfly’s preferred habitat.

“If you don’t have prairie fens, you don’t have the butterfly. Michigan is very important to their overall survival,” said Cuthrell.

There are less than ten sites in Michigan where Powesheik’s have been spotted, and they haven’t been seen in Minnesota since 2007.

“They’re an indicator species of the health of the ecosystem,” Cuthrell explained.

The survival of the Powsheik impacts the existence of the birds, dragonflies, preying mantis, and crab spiders that feed on them.

Springfield’s prairie fens are dotted with Black-Eyed Susans and are fed by groundwater, which gives them a spongy feel beneath one’s feet. Besides the Powsheik, the fens are home to Monarch butterflies along with rattlesnakes, ground squirrels, birds, and other wildlife.

Management of the prairie fens has played a significant role in the Powsheik’s increased population too. Plants like Phragmites have threatened to take over the butterfly’s habitat by crowding out the Powsheik’s favorite vegetation.

Through methods such as controlled burning and restoration planting, the butterfly population has been revived, said Parks and Recreation Director Jennifer Tucker.

“This is a fantastic ecological system, and stewardship is important,” Tucker said.

The whole process of surveying the butterflies and restoring their habitat has taken over five years, and Tucker was excited to finally reach this point where the Powsheik’s eggs could be shared.

Collection of the butterfly’s eggs is part of a larger prairie conservation effort on the part of Butterfly Conservationist Dr. Erik Rundquics of the Minnesota Zoo.

Rundquics secured grant funds and permits from the Michigan DNR allowing the zoo to take the eggs across state lines.

“The goal is to take the eggs back, and next summer the adults will emerge. We hope to develop a colony on zoo grounds,” said Cale Nordmeyer the Resident Butterfly Naturalist of the Minnesota Zoo.

Nordmeyer deftly transferred Springfield’s female Powsheiks with large, egg-filled abdomens from their glass vials and into mesh containers holding Little Blue Stem plants. Little Blue Stems along with Prairie Drop Seed make the perfect hosts for baby caterpillars, Nordmeyer explained.

After the butterflies laid their eggs, they were released back to the prairie. They are expected to hatch in Minnesota in the next few days.

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