Gossamer Tapestry

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

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Swamp Metalmarks and the ESA

Over at Rural Wat, valown has written a series of posts about the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These, and some of the discussion that he and I have had in the comments have prompted me to offer a few of my own thoughts here.

I have been working on restoration of the swamp metalmark butterfly in Illinois for about five years now. This sepcies is neither an endangered species at the federal level, nor a candidate for listing. Should the situation be otherwise? Part of what prompted me to ask this question is some of the language of the ESA as recounted by valown:
(6) The term "endangered species" means any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range...
Let's consider this statement in light of the range of this butterfly

In the states shaded in red, NatureServe has ranked the swamp metalmark as critically imperiled (S1). In the orange states they have ranked it as imperiled (S2). In Iowa, it is listed as historic only (SH - meaning it's now extinct there) . In Missouri, it is listed as vulnerable to exterpation or extinction (S3). Globally, it is also listed as vulnerable (G3). Its global status seems closely tied to it's status in Missouri.

This information alone suggests that this butterfly might qualify as a candidate for the ESA. The states in which it is considered imperiled, critically or otherwise, make up the vast majority of its range. NatureServe's description of this species reads, in part:
There are possibly around 100 occurrences, although substantially fewer have ever been documented and some of these no longer exist. This species exists as mostly isolated, small, remnant colonies with little or no potential for recolonization in most of its range. It is thus expected a lot of occurrences will prove to be non-viable. Outside of the Ozarks, the species has a limited and highly fragmented range with low habitat occupancy. This species is almost certainly extirpated or imperiled to critically imperiled (S1 or S2) in all states except for its core range in Missouri and possibly immediately adjacent parts of Arkansas. A recent reassessment of its status in Missouri concludes S3 is still an appropriate rank there with scattered localized populations in up to 20 counties.
A couple of years back, I received a spreadsheet of the locations for this species in Missouri. Consistent with the NatureServe report, there are 33 locations on the list, and indeed these sites include 20 counties. Of those 33 locations, 13 of the records date from before 1970 (one dates to 1927). Twenty one of the records date from before 1980, and only three of the records are from 1990 or later.

I don't know how much verification of these sites has been done in the intervening years since I received the spreadsheet, but I do know that this is a species with a known history of populations blinking out well within the timeframe covered by the spreadsheet.

My point here is not to imply that anything nefarious is going on here. I do, however, think that the conservation status of this species bears a closer look. At the very least, a serious on the ground assessment of its current status in Missouri would seem to be called for.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Nature Island of the Caribbean

Roseau, capitol of Dominica

Dominica (pronounced doe-min-EEK-uh) was the island I was most interested in visiting on this trip. Leon and I visited previously about 15 years ago. We had planned a trip to Jamaica, then did some reading and were charmed by the descriptions of Dominica, termed the "nature island of the Caribbean." We went there instead, loved our visit, and looked forward to our return.

First light as we pass the Dominican coast

Our day in Dominica began auspiciously. I was unable to sleep, and got up before dawn. I went out on deck and watched the sun come up while we cruised the length of the island while the skies grew light and the sun rose. Just before dawn, a dolphin swam alongside of the boat and jumped several times off of the port bow. At breakfast, we were treated to a rainbow. Readers of UrSpo's blog will probably recognize the "standing together under the rainbow" pose. It’s very appropriate that Someone (UrSpo's partner) took this photo.

Somewhere under the rainbow

It turns out that we overestimated how long it would take to get off of the ship and on our way. If we had gotten up early, and left as soon as the ship opened for disembarkation, we would have had time to hike all the way up to the boiling lake and the Valley of Desolation. I’m not sure that UrSpo and Someone would have come with us, as they don’t do as much hiking as we do, and that’s a pretty intense hike. So it’s just as well that we opted to do a trip to Soufriere Valley, what the guidebook termed a "mini Valley of Desolation" and had a wonderful time with good company.

Inside the caldera at Soufriere

We hired a cab, expecting a quick pickup and drop-off. Instead, we got a tour guide for the day. We began at Soufriere. The hike is fairly short. It begins in a caldera, and leads up a watercourse flowing with volcano-warmed water. We enjoyed topical vegetation, birds and lizards, but few insects. Dominica is the Caribbean island that has the most volcanic activity, and also the island that has retained the greatest proportion of its native vegetation, which in this case means rainforest. It’s a great choice for Leon and I since he’s a geology geek who loves volcanoes and there’s plenty to entertain my biophilia.

Fumes and heat prevent vegetation from growing on this slope. The small stream at the base of the rocks was too hot to touch here.

The hike culminates in a small, barren valley. The water is emerging here as hot springs, too hot to even touch near the spring’s source. The heat of the water and sulfurous fumes severely limit plant life. There are also fumeroles dotting the valley floor. I did get nice photos of a millipede and a robber fly here.


Robber fly

Following the volcanic hike, we climbed Scott Head, a rocky headland that just out of the southwest corner of the island. There were expansive views of the island, sea, and sky. A large flock of frigate birds filled the sky. And there were HUGE grasshoppers everywhere. They were clearly bird grasshoppers (genus Schistocerca, though I don’t know which species this is), so named for their very strong flight. I managed to get some nice shots of an individual that was about 2 1/2 inches long with a wingspan closing in on 5 inches.

The view from Scott Head

The larger but lovely Schistocerca sp.

I got out for a while in the afternoon to go insect chasing. This was fairly disappointing, if for no other reason than the fact that it’s touch to get out of the capital city of Roseau on foot. About all I saw as a bunch of blue lizards. As we sailed out of port late that afternoon, I was treated to beautiful views of the island in the late afternoon light. We’ll definitely be back when we can again spend more time there.

Blue lizard. Probably a Dominican ameivas (Ameiva fuscata).

Bye, Dominica. Scott Head is the rock at the left side of the island.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Greetings from Aruba

tHaving a wonderful time. Wish you were here.

Local color from Aruba

Sorry for the thin posting Internet access from the ship is very expensive. Will post more later. Hi to all from UrSpo.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Caribbean Blue

The good ship Summit. Our cruise ship seen from above the town of Rosseau, Dominica

As I type this, I’m sitting out on the stern deck of a cruise ship accompanied by a rum punch, watching the island of Grenada recede behind us. We departed about a half hour ago. Don’t hate me.

Our adventure began on Saturday. We got up before dawn for the airport run, and both departed Chicago and arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on time. We went directly to the cruise ship, so I haven’t had any time in Puereto Rico yet, though we will get a day of that at the end of the trip.

Orient Beach, St. Martin

We awoke Sunday morning in St. Martin. Plans to do a somewhat cheesy package tour caled "Spend the day aboard a pirate ship’ went awry. Instead, we took a taxi to the beach. I’ve been to St. Martin once before- it’s beautiful, sunny, and everything you’d associate with the Caribbean. I took a walk along the beach and saw some really pretty forktail damselflies- but only got a so-so picture.

Damselfly (Ishnura sp.) on Orient Beach

Lunch was interesting because I got to try a kind of food I’ve never had before. Someone (of Spo and Someone) got curried goat and let me have a bite. I did not regret my decision to get the jerk chicken wings and conch fritters.

After lunch, Spo and Someone went shopping. Leon went back to the shiop to read. I did what I do best. There was a hillside covered with cactus scrub and thorn bushes near the cruise ship terminal. I went exploring for arthropods. There were giant orb-weaving spiders there. They were quite pretty, the largest being about two inches across (the leg-span, not the body). I, of course, thought immediately of Urspo.

Obligatory giant spider shot for Urspo

This insect adventure had me seeing lots of sulphur and blue butterflies, and a really cute (but completely camera shy) hairstreak butterfly. It’s also the source of the greates frustration of the trup to date. Remember my shopping list? The blue-singed grasshopper can be found on St Martin. Yep, I saw it. I didn’t even just see it- I caught one. Had it in my net and everything. It escaped as I was attemting to transfer it into the jar. I haen’t been quite right since then.

The sun is sinking lower in the sky. My glass is just about empty. The Caribbean Sea bleow me is indigo blue, peppered with frothy whitecaps. Life is so good, that I think I’ll wait until later to post about our stop at Dominica.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Antilles Pintkoe

Rodger has inspired me to expand my tropical shopping list. This is the Antilles Pinktoe tarantula, a species endemic to the Lesser Antilles. This photo is from the National Zoo's web site. Typically the abdomen and legs of this species are redder. They are quite beautiful and I would really love to see one.

Hugs to UrSpo.

Update: Now that I've had my fun with Spo, I'll give one bit on additional info. Although this species is endemic to the Lesser Antilles, its endemism is actually much narrower than that. It's found only on the island of Martinique. As we will not be stopping at that island on this trip, neither I nor Spo stand much of a chance of actually encountering one. I'm sure that I have now made myself the target for some sort of retaliatory action in the upcoming week.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Caribbean Shopping List

I’m posting something because Heather recently complained about my lack of activity. Hey, it’s hard to do a bug blog in Chicago in the middle of a very cold winter. But all of that will change next week: Leon and I are accompanying UrSpo and his partner on a cruise to the Caribbean. Since we are going to be playing in the land of the duty-free, I thought I’d best prepare a list before we head out. The following shopping list is sure to inspire derision from UrSpo:

1. Orphulella typha. This grasshopper is found only on the island of St. Martin. My book is now 20 years old, so things might have changes since then, but the author reports that males have not yet been observed. A challenge! I couldn’t find any online photos. Another challenge!

Sphingonotus savignyi - an African relative of a species I hope to see

2. Sphingonotis haitensis. A banded-winged grasshopper with lovely pale-blue wings. There are several Caribbean species of Sphingonotus. My best bet is to try to see S. haitensis at the end of the trip while we are on Pureto Rico. Again, no photos, but I did find a picture of an African relative.

Cicindela trifasciata. Photo: Fr. Alejandro Sanchez

3. Tiger Beetles (of course). There are three species that I have a chance to see. Cicindela trifasciata is the most likely. It’s also found in the US, though I have never seen it. There are two Caribbean endemics. C. suturalis is found on a bunch of the islands. It’s probably my best shot at seeing a regional endemic tiger beetle. C. boops, in addition to having a charming name, is a cool species that I might see on either Puerto Rico or St. Martin. The literature describes it as the least common of the three.

Strangalia insularis - photo by Larry Bezark

4. Strangalia insularis. The item on my list that I most want to see. It’s a cerambycid beetle that is endemic to the island of Dominica. It’s a flower longhorn, which means that I stand a chance of being able to see it during the daytime.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Washington Meeting

Karen and a bunch of graphs

I did manage to make it to Washington Tuesday night. I've spent the last couple of days meeting with colleagues to discuss a bunch of data that we are working with. The data concern the monarch butterfly, and they have been gathered through a variety of programs that include people who are not formally trained as scientists. These citizen scientist programs are becoming very trendy. I believe that they have the potential to produce a large quantity of important environmental data. I was there in part because of my work with the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network. That's a program that I have run since the late 1980s, and we have a very large data set. Karen Oberhauser is a very well known and respected monarch biologist from the University of Minnesota. Leslie Ries is at the University of Maryland, the location of our meeting. She's the statistician of the group. She and I have been collaborating for several years now, and this is the first time that we got to meet in person.

Our goal was to collate data from a bunch of citizen science programs from around the country. It's a really varied bunch of programs. Some focus on the monarch exclusively, others monitor all species including the monarch. Some monitor adults, others eggs and larvae. Some are national programs. Others have a more regional focus. Would we be able see anything coherent from such a variety of data sets?

Leslie and Doug with an alarmingly large set of correlation analyses that need to be done

The good news is that the outcome was very encouraging. There were some interesting things that we were able to see in the data sets. It feels to me like we arrived at this meeting with a bunch of interesting data, and left with the beginnings of a story. Theres still a lot of statistical anaylsis to be done, but I'm very happy with the outcome so far.

Now, off to the Smithsonian/

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Here we go again

This is my house last Friday morning, just after 10" of snow. Sunday night we got 4 more. This evening I'll get to escape some of this when I fly to Washington. But wait...

Chicago is now under a winter storm warning beginning at 6 PM tonight. Another 9-12" of snow is expected tonight and tomorrow. Coincidentally, my flight is scheduled to depart at 6. I hate winter.

Update 6:15 PM: The plane is loading. Blog at ya from DC.

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