Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Swamp Metalmark: My Butterfly Romance

Swamp Metalmark 7/18/07

Just before I moved to Chicago in 1979, I checked the maps in my Golden Guide to Butterflies to see which new species I might encounter in the Chicago area. Two jumped out at me: the Olympia Marblewing and the Swamp Metalmark. As it turns out, these are both rare species regionally, restricted to very specialized habitats. Within a couple of years of arriving in Chicago, I had jumped on the South Shore Line train to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and seen dozens of Olympia Marblewings. The metalmark remained a mystery, however.

Olympia Marblewing

In the winter of 1983, I attended my first Illinois Prairie Conference up in Crystal Lake. One of the optional breakout sessions was on prairie butterflies, presented by Wayne Shennum. How could I not attend? There, I learned two important things. First, it was possible to learn to identify skippers, a task I set about immediately. Second, Swamp Metalmarks live in fens, and there are historical records of Swamp Metalmarks from Bluff Spring Fen, the site I had been helping to manage for the previous two years. My notes from that part of the talk are peppered with exclamation points.

Bluff Spring Fen. The pink flowers in the foreground are Swamp Thistle,
caterpillar food plant for the Swap Metalmark

Ten years ago, when I made the jump from the biotech industry to the museum world, I insisted on one thing during my job interview: that I be able to use the new facility to develop a research program for the conservation and restoration of local butterflies. The then president at the museum shared my views on the matter. In 2001, we received a Leader Award from BP for the purpose of developing such a program. Since the mid 1980s, the time I figured out that the metalmark had been extirpated from the Fen, I had wanted to restore the species there. Now was my chance. And so, in 2001, I actually got to see my first living swamp metalmarks at Dundee Fen in Wisconsin. More importantly, I brought 6 females back to Illinois with me.

Me collecting metalmarks at Dundee Fen in 2001

Our initial efforts at restoration have been slow. Most years I see nothing at all. Occasionally I find a larva on swamp thistle early in the spring. Last year I saw one adult. These efforts have been hampered by the fact that the Wisconsin populations are very small, and there is little material to work with. This year, there is renewed hope.

In June, a member of my staff went to the McGuire Center for Lepedoptera Research and Conservation in Gainesville, Florida to learn some of their breeding techniques. We have already applied these to one species, with great success so far. This week, I went to the Riverendge Nature Center in Wisconsin and returned with four gravid female Metalmarks.

The fen at Riveredge Nature Center

As of this writing, we have over 70 eggs, and could easily end up with over 100. This is the largest amount of stock that we have ever had to work with. My goal is to attempt full breeding of this species in the lab, with the ultimate goal of releasing not the larvae that these eggs will hatch into, but their progeny. If they will successfully breed in the lab, I can expand the number that I have to work with into the hundreds or even the thousands. These large numbers will allow both for more robust restoration efforts, and for the possibility of restoration on more than one site.

Swamp Metalmark caterpillar

My love affair with this butterfly has endured for decades, and has had its ups and downs. I have not always been rewarded, and at times my love feels unrequited. Still, the Swamp Metalmark is the most endangered species of butterfly that I am working with, even though it is not recognized as endangered at the federal level. If there is one part of my life’s work that I want to live on long after I do, this is it.

Update: The egg count is now over 100. Some of the adult butterflies have died (not surprising at this point), others are still laying eggs. Unfortunately, one appears not to have laid eggs at all. Did I manage to snag the rare un-mated female? Oh, well, we're getting lots of eggs. Yay!

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At 14:06, Blogger lisa said...

I found your blog via Wayne's at Niches, and I say kudos for your efforts! I live in northern Wisconsin, and try to plant things that are beneficial to insects of all kinds. I haven't seen one of these butterflies here yet, but will absolutely keep my eyes open!

At 16:55, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Hi Lisa, Welcome to the Tapestry. There are metalmarks in northern Wisconsin, but only in very few locations. If you ever see one, take a picture and let me know.

At 20:45, Blogger Spider said...

I so envy your life and your vocation - something you love to do that is beautiful and benefits mankind... the photos are wonderful and the butterflies are beautiful - thanks for sharing!

At 21:38, Blogger Ur-spo said...

how marvelous that you are doing something so noble and helpful.

At 11:47, Blogger rodger said...

Such a beautiful butterfly! Your passion really comes out in this post.

I'm happy to hear the new techniques are paying off and I'll keep my fingers crossed that they continue with the swamp metalmark.

At 12:04, Anonymous rcwbiologist said...

Great to hear that you're having better success now. Maybe one day I will be able to visit Bluff Spring Fen and see great numbers of swamp metalmarks flying around. That's great work your doing there.

At 15:16, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Spider- Thanks. This is the first decent photo I've managed to get of this species. I'm really glad not to have to borrow any more.

Spo- I'm just glad you havne't gottne tired of me blabbing on and on about my work. Thanks for continuing to come by.

Roger- thanks for the crossed fingers. I won't relax about any of this until we start getting some pupae and adults out of our efforts.

RCW- I think it would be a total blast to show you around the Fen. St. Louis isn't that far away- you should consider coming up here next time you are down that way.

At 09:54, Blogger robin andrea said...

Your efforts at repopulating this beautiful butterfly are quite moving. The world will truly be a better place for this good work that you do. I can't wait to see the results.

At 13:08, Anonymous Mark H said...

and I thought I was going something by getting ladybugs going in our yard a few years ago (and they HAVE done wonderfully!)...so MY ladybug love affair pales in comparison to yours with the most beautiful Swamp Metalmark. It must be quite a thrill to see years of effort just now begin to pay rewards. Congrats, DAD! ! ! !

At 17:13, Blogger Floridacracker said...

Good work!
Bring 'em back!

At 22:02, Blogger steve'swhirlyworld said...

NO WAY..."bugs in bondage"...now I've heard everything :)

At 10:16, Blogger Kevin Z said...

Wonderful contribution to the Circus!

Having grown up in the Quad Cities, I miss seeing the prairies of the north midwest. It is here where I learned to appreciate nature.

At 18:29, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

Doug, what a wonderful thing you are doing. Why did the metalmark capture your heart?

At 08:34, Anonymous Beau said...

Hi Doug- Read your latest comment at RoundRock re. thistles and the metalmark... I learned something new, and will try to leave more thistles here and there on our small property. We're in east-central MO along the northern ozarks, and although I haven't identified any personally, the data appears to show metalmarks here. Best regards- Beau at Fox Haven Journal.

At 21:06, Anonymous Jewel said...

The Gossamer...she is down in that black gator water tonight....fluttering and trailing up from the marshes....sailing past the shore lines....the waves they lap at her...calling to her...luring her....she turns....gliding yet deeper still into the swamps...brilliant fire are her wings....spotted ice white tips....she seeks the rare orchid.....moonlit paths guide her way.....see her burn through the night......jewelm699@yahoo.com


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