April 3rd, 2017
An effort to save the Quino checkerspot butterfly from extinction appears to be working.
Biologists from several local agencies returned recently to a hillside in the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge, where they had placed butterfly larvae in specially constructed pods over the winter, and found that nature had taken its course: Quino checkerspots were flitting about.
“Observing more than 35 butterflies flying in one day on the reintroduction site is extraordinary,” said Paige Howorth, associate curator of invertebrates at the San Diego Zoo. “It’s a welcome measure of hope, after years of drought and uncertainty for this species.”
Quino checkerspots used to be among the most commonly seen butterflies in Southern California, their range extending from the coast near Ventura County, east to the Tehachapi Mountains and south to northern Baja.
But urban development, climate change, invasive weeds and fire have decimated the population over the past decade, depriving the ecosystem of an important pollinator for native plants. The butterfly is now on the endangered species list.
As part of the recovery program, larvae were raised at the zoo’s Butterfly Conservation Lab. Almost 750 of them were taken in December to the wildlife refuge, where the insect’s preferred plant, the dwarf plantain, grows.
They were placed in 38 spherical pods filled with peat moss, wired shut to guard against predators and capped with plastic rain shields. The pods — each one holding 15 to 28 larvae — were attached to the plantain. And the biologists crossed their fingers.
During their recent return to the refuge, they found most of the larvae gone from the pods and saw butterflies flying around. “Our efforts have been at least to some degree successful, but time will tell,” said John Martin, a biologist with the wildlife refuge. The breeding program continues at the zoo, with an eye toward one day having a self-sustaining population in the wild.
Other partners on the project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Conservation Biology Institute and San Diego State University.