Gossamer Tapestry

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

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Michigan Myrmecophily

This post is for Mark, who has been asking me to write something on this topic for over a year now.

Allegan State Game Area, Allegan County, Michigan

On Wednesday the Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management Workshop traveled from Toledo to the Allegan State Game Area in Western Michigan. Our goal was to see the population of Karner Blue butterflies that was used as the source of material bred for release in Ohio. In addition to a huge population of federally endangered Karner Blues, Allegan is home to a sizeable population of Edwards Hairstreaks, an uncommon butterfly of oak barrens.

Edwards Hairstreak (l) and Karner Blue (r) slurp some milkweed nectar

Karner Blues and Edwards Hairstreaks are both members of the gossamer winged butterflies, or Lycaenidae. Along with many other lycaenid butterflies, they have a close relationship with ants, called myrmecophily. The relationship involves the caterpillars.

Female Karner Blue (Plebejus melissa samuelis)

A Karner Blue caterpillar emits scents and ecven sounds that attract certain species of ants. When they detect the caterpillar, they approach it and begin stroking it with their legs and antennae. The caterpillars have special organs on their skin that emit droplets of a nutritious liquid called honeydew. The ants consume the honeydew, and drive off parasitic flies and wasps that may try to attack the caterpillar.

Edwards Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsii)

This mutualistic relationship is carried even further when the Edwards Hairstreak is involved. The ants will actually carry the caterpillars back to their nests. What starts out as a mutualistic relationship turns partly parasitic, as the caterpillars may include ant larvae in their diets. The caterpillars pupate underground. When the adults emerge from the pupae, they must quickly leave the ant mound, as they no longer produce the pheromone that calms the ants. Many species have deciduous scales. These scales quickly drop off when ants attacking the fleeing adult butterfly grab onto them.

Allegheny Mound Ant (Formica exsectoides)

At the Allegan Game Area, one of the ant species that interacts with the Edwards Hairstreak is the Allegheny Mound Ant. These were common in the area where we found the Edwards Haristreaks. Dozens of ant monds were found in the oak scrub, and getting nipped was a hazard of trying to photograph the butterflies. The mounds that they build are impressive- the largest was nearly 3 feet tall.

Huge ant mound. This one is nearly 3 feet high.

The complex relationship between Edwards Hairstreak and various ant species may in part explain why it is so much less common than the very similar Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus) in my part of the country. The latter species does not share this complex relationship, and can perhaps better survive in oak woodlands that lack appropriate ant species.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Butterfly Restoration in Oak Openings

Kitty Todd Preserve outside of Toledo, Ohio

The Imperiled Butterfly Conservation and Management Workshop has been going very well. Our attendees come from all over the US and Canada, and have a variety of backgrounds and interests. We're hearing a lot about the research activities of the Toledo Zoo, the institution hosting this segment of the workshop. They are working with two endangered species: the Karner Blue and Mitchell's Satyr. Today we visited a number of Karner Blue release sites, and even got to release some butterflies.

Me releasing a Karner

Recently released Karner Blue
Note the red marking dot that identifies this as a lab-raised butterfly

Kitty Todd is part of the oak openings ecosystem. It's similar to the dune and swale ecosystem of northwest Indiana, and has a similar geological history. Both ecosystems are home to Karner blues, however the vegetation is very different. Many unusual plants and animals can be found here.

We saw acres of this milkwort (Polygala sp.)

Edwards Hairstreak (Satyrium edwardsi), a species of special concern in Ohio,
is found in Oak Openings Park near Kitty Todd

Cicindela lepida habitat

One of the sites that we visited today, Oak Openings Park, still contains an active sand dune, even though it's miles from Lake Erie. I immediately thought of tiger beetles when I was it, and wasn't disappointed. The Ghost Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lepida) is a new species to me. I got photos, but I was happier with them on my camera screen that I was when I got them moved onto my computer. Still, a very nice beetle.

Ghost Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lepida)

After lunch, the group participated in more Karner Blue releases. So far, it has been an interesting and enjoyable workshop. I feel like I'm making contributions to the teaching part of this (I'm definitely holding my own on plant identification), I'm seeing new things and I'm making some great new connections.

Brian and Steve release a Karner

Tomorrow, we head up to Michigan. With luck, I'll get my first ever look at an endangered species caled Mitchell's Satyr. I can't wait.

This female Karner Blue was not raised in the laboratory

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy

Baltimore Checkerspot Habitat

This time of year is typically insanely busy for me- but this year seems to be especially crazy. Last Tuesday, Leon had minor surgery on his hand. He's doing fine, but that started off a really hectic time. On Thursday, I went to some private property near Crystal Lake to get some Baltimore Checkerspots for a breeding program. We got seven females, four of whom have already laid eggs in the lab.

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)

Thursday afternoon, I continued north up to the city of McHenry to attend a meeting about Gypsy moths. This non-native species is just beginning to invade Illinois, and there is a lot of potential for collateral damage to some of our rarer native butterfly and moth species through Gypsy moth control efforts.

Ron at the Blacklight

From the Gypsy noth meeting, I got in the car and drove 2 1/2 hours to a spot west of Dixon, Illinois where I joined my friend Ron for blacklighting. Our quarry was Schinia lucens, the leadplant flower moth. This prairie moth has become extremely rare in Illinois, and we're looking to breed it in the lab. We got three (one probably a male) over the course of the evening. I drove home and stumbled into bed just after 3 AM.

Leadplant Flower Moth (Schinia lucens)
Photo: Ron Panzer

Friday morning, I was up at 7 to drive Leon to his follow-up appointment at the surgeon's. He was in great shape, so I dropped him off at his work, then continued on to my own. Friday afternoon I was supposed to go back to Grundy County to get more Gorgone Checkerspots and Silver-bordered Fritillaries. It was cloudy and rainy- probably just as well for me. I stayed at work and plodded through the afternoon then went home to pack and crash.

Pack? Well, yes, there's lots more. Saturday morning, I was up bright and early and drove to Kankakee Sands in west-central Indiana for this summer's Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network field workshop. We had a great turnout and saw some really cool butterflies, including Regal Fritillaries (unfortuntely I did not get a decent photo). From there, I drove directly to Toledo, Ohio, where I am right now. For the next four days, I'll be part of a tem of instructors offering a course on butterfly conservation.

I find what I'm doing right now to be exciting, a lot of fun, and utterly exhausing. At work, we currently have eggs from at least three imperiled species of butterflies, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this work unfolds over the rest of the summer. Additionally, I can't wait until I depart for my trip to southeast Arizona a week from Friday.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Open a New Window

Remember a few months back when I blogged about the new butterfly conservation lab? I mentioned that we would soon be getting a window that would allow visitors ot the Nature Museum to view the butterfly breeding activities. A couple of weeks ago, it went in. Doesn't it look great?

The three cups to the left of the spray bottle on the wire shelves contain female butterflies that are laying eggs for us. The silver-bordered fritillaries have layed over 200 so far. We have a big mass of gorgone checkerspot eggs, too. Gorgones lay their eggs in big masses, so we won't be able to get a good count on them. And with that, the 2009 butterfly conservation season gets into full swing.

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Sunday, July 05, 2009

Butterflies at the Fen

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton)

Early July is the height of butterfly diversity at Bluff Spring Fen. I ran my monitoring route this afternoon and in an hour and a half, I recorded 101 butterflies from 19 different species. I've started a project where I'm staying after my route and trying to photograph the varius species that I'm seeing. This is because I'm trying to convert all of my talks from slide show format to PowerPoint. I could just scan my old slides, but I'll get much better image quality if I take my new camera out with me and take a bunch of photos.

More Baltimore Checkerspot!

The main butterfly event at the Fen is the large population of Baltimore Checkerspots that lives there. They're one of my favorite butterflies- how can you not fall in love with something that beautiful? Ever since I was a little boy, I've been captivated by the red and yellow spots on the velvety black background. I've blogged about this species before. I'm not yet happy with the upper side photo, but it gives a good idea of what the butterfly looks like. Eventually I'll get a shot that I'm happy with.

Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua)

The Black Dash Skipper is another wetland specialist. I love that this species is so predictable. A week ago, I saw none. I knew I'd be seeing some this week, the first ones always show up right about the Fourth of July. I took a couple of dozen photos and managed to get a few that I liked.

Banded Hairstreak (Satyrium calanus)

Coral Hairstreak (Harkenclenus titus)

I saw three different hairstreak species today. The Banded Hairstreak lives in the oak woods. The caterpillars feed on oak leaves. It spends a lot of time up in the canopy. I have a feeling that we significantly undercount it in our butterfly surveys. The Coral Hairstreak likes prairie edges. The vast majority of the time I find it, it's on butterfly milkweed, as it is here.

I didn't take a picture of the third hairstreak that I saw, because it wasn't a very good specimen. But I was very glad to see it. The Acadian Hairstreak (Satyrium acadica) hasn't been seen at Bluff Spring Fen since 2004. I was afraid we had lost it, so it's really good to see that it's still around.

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Most of the butterflies that I see at the Fen are common species like this Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak. You don't have to go someplace special to see them. Still, I'm trying to get a more complete collection of digital images, so I'm not about to pass up good photo opportunities. The results this time around were a mixed bag in terms of quality, but I'm reasonably happy over all. Getting a couple of shots that I'm pleased with when I venture out like this feeels like progress to me.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Finding Something New in a Place I Know Well

My trip to New England was several weeks ago- but I wanted to do a final post about my last day there before I forgot about it. Before going boating, Leon and I took a quick hike up to Agassiz Rock to try to see the rare red-bellied tiger beetles. No luck, but I did take GPS coordinates and some better habitat photos.

The tiger beetles run over the open expanses of bare granite. I think we may have been a bit too early to see them- the Massachusetts data sheet that I have lists flight times in July and August.

Northern Cloudywing (Thorybes pylades) along the carriage road

That evening, we planned on taking my dad out for an early Father's Day dinner. We got back from boating with plenty of time to spare, and decided to go for a walk in the woods before dressing for dinner. There are old carriage roads all over the woods next to Dad's house, and I wanted to walk there and do some insect photography.

Spangled Skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

Way down one of the carriage roads, we saw an unfamiliar side trail into the woods. We decided to follow it for a while. I vaguely remembered it leading to a pond. It did- but not the pond I remembered. I was absolutely stunned to break out of the woods and find an absolutely gorgeous floating sphagnum bog.

Floating bogs form where sphagnum moss begins growing around the periphery of a pond. The moss forms a floating mat that thickens and begins growing towards the center of the pond. Eventually other plants, including shrubs and small trees, begin growing in the floating mat. Many floating bogs, including this one, retain open water at the center. They can be treacherous to walk on- it's possible to break through the floating mat and become trapped under it.

Sundew! (Drosera rotundifolia)

Sphagnum bogs are home to an amazing array of specialized plants, including orchids and carniverous plants like this sundew. We weren't dressed for slogging our way out into the soggy center (boots, or even hip waders are needed for that sort of thing), so we had to be content with looking in from the edges. I would have loved to have known this was there when I was growing up. I'll definitely have to go back. We were too early in the season to see if the rare bog copper butterfly can be found in this bog.

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