Wildlife conservation

The Last Butterfly

  • September 15, 2018

The Eastern monarch is in trouble, and this is the time to help (no science degree needed).

NASHVILLE — A monarch butterfly’s chrysalis is one of the most beautiful things in nature. Bright emerald green and flecked with gold, it is an exquisite jewel that contains within it an even more exquisite promise.

The day before a monarch emerges, its chrysalis turns dark, almost black, but if you hold a light up to it, you can see the shape of vivid orange wings inside. The wings are lined with black veins like stained-glass windows in a cathedral. They are still tightly folded, but they hold, in miniature, the shape of an adult butterfly’s wings. At this stage, it’s possible to tell the butterfly’s gender even before it emerges from the chrysalis, just by looking at the thickness of those black veins framing the folded wings.

I’ve been trying to cultivate monarchs in my family room for two summers now, with mixed results. Last year few of my mail-order caterpillars formed a chrysalis and none survived to become a butterfly. This year I’ve had better luck: After watching a monarch female lay eggson the milkweed in my own garden — not once but twice this season — I brought a few eggs indoors to raise safe from predators. I released seven healthy butterflies in June and four more last week, a perfect record of egg-to-butterfly survival. But I don’t know how many eggs hatched in the garden, or how many of those that hatched survived. Even with their bright yellow stripes, monarch caterpillars are skilled at camouflage.

As a species, the Eastern monarch — an iconic butterfly that migrates 3,000 miles every year — is in serious trouble. A changing climate is part of the problem, imperiling the monarch’s Mexican wintering grounds and spawning extreme weather events that can destroy millions of migrating butterflies. And pesticide drift can poison caterpillars even when they aren’t the targeted pest.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates adding the monarch to the federal endangered-species list, the North American monarch population has dropped more than 80 percent in the last two decades. This year, the butterfly’s migratory population — some 93 million — was significantly lower than only a year ago. And scientists believe the population needs to reach at least 225 million to avoid extinction.

Raising monarchs inside a climate-controlled family room is a fascinating hobby, but it isn’t the way to save the species. The butterflies I released this year, even combined with the thousands and thousands of butterflies released by dedicated monarch stewards across the country, will make little difference in a population still so far short of sustainable numbers. What the monarch needs to survive is more milkweed.
The author cultivated monarch butterflies in her living room.


As Laurel Wamsley of NPR, the public radio network, reported recently, a new project at the Field Museum in Chicago aims to help by planting milkweed in urban areas along one of the monarch’s major migration corridors. A team led by Abigail Derby Lewis, a senior conservation ecologist at the museum, investigated potential planting sites in Austin, Tex., Kansas City, Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul. They discovered something surprising: There is already a lot of milkweed growing in the cities — 41 million plants.

Source: The Last Butterfly

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