Who Can Identify the World's Rarest Butterfly

Two scientists are in a grim contest to document some of the animal kingdom's most endangered species

The St. Francis Satyrs now number around 1,000 and are found in an area of less than 20 acres. (Melissa McGaw)

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The good news about the Crystal Skipper is that it seems to do relatively well with urbanization. Like Leidner, the species is simultaneously urban and in love with a few dear and wild things, in its case a host plant, the little bluestem, a type of beach grass. The Crystal Skipper flies easily among the beach houses that rise up out of the sand in long, colorful rows. The houses themselves may be reconcilable with the conservation of the Skipper, as long as the little bluestem survives. The trouble is that houses do not arrive alone. With them come roads, grocery stores and lawns that tend to replace the wild, unkempt beach grass on which the Skipper depends. As far as anyone knows, the Crystal Skipper feeds on nothing else but little bluestem and lives nowhere else other than on the sandy patches of a few small islands. It is both rare and dependent, the last tenuous piece on a whirring mobile of coastal life.

Part of the rarity of the Crystal Skipper may be natural, a consequence of where it lives. Off and on over the past few millions years, the patches of dunes on the Outer Banks have been separated both from each other and from the mainland. Plants and animals that have persisted on or colonized the islands have become separate, too, and evolved into different species. This appears to be the case for the Crystal Skipper, whose closest likely relatives live in Florida, among the snowbirds. Because its story began with isolation on small islands, the Crystal Skipper was never common, but it is probably more rare than it has been for thousands of years. Leidner thinks, for example, that it used to live on the Shackleford Banks, where wild, hungry horses now roam and eat nearly everything, including the little bluestem, down to the ground. As they do, they also consume any chance for the Skipper to persist. On other islands, houses and civilization have replaced many acres of dunes and wild grass. What the Crystal Skipper has to work with now is just a small vestige of an already small wild past.

And so there are two rare butterflies in North Carolina, each with its own champion. Both Haddad and Leidner would be proud to be the one studying the world’s rarest butterfly, the rarer of these two. Haddad is still sure he has won. Leidner equivocates. “Depends on the year,” she says. But the bigger win would be to lose: The more rare either butterfly is, the more likely it will go extinct, whether because of the actions of humans, or now that humans have pushed these species to the edge, because of chance. And so they try, through talks about what needs to be done, through restoration projects and through whatever else they can do, to make the species they work on more common.

In the meantime, Haddad has not yet told Leidner, but he has begun working on what might be an even rarer species, the Miami Blue, which lives in the Florida Keys and numbers at most in the tens. Others may, in this case, agree that this butterfly is the rarest. The Miami Blue has recently been emergency listed as an endangered species, which will afford it some protection from additional threats posed by humans, out on the tiny islands in the enormous sea. Nick thinks it’s the winner, at least for now, though there are so many rare species flickering on the verge of extinction that it is impossible to know for sure.

Just outside San Francisco, the Lange’s Metalmark butterfly struggles to survive on a few old desert dunes. Another kind of butterfly, El Segundo Blue, lives only on the sand at the end of the runway at Los Angeles International Airport. Still another, the Uncompahgre Fritillary, is found only in small patches of habitat above 13,000 feet in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Then there are still others, outside the United States, although less data is available for them. Rare species persist, for now, in many places where someone has looked carefully. Some of those species have defenders like Haddad or Leidner. Most, particularly those in places like the tropics where fewer biologists are around to take stock, do not. They simply live and die, influenced by our actions but unnoticed as they rise up on the wind or fail to. Sometimes it is said that a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan can change the weather in Raleigh. Maybe. It seems more likely that a conservation biologist waving his or her hands can change the fate of a butterfly, or at least that is what we might hope: that in the battle over the rarest species, biologists all around the world begin to lose.

Editor's Note, November 9, 2011: We apologize for an error in the original version of this story. Thomas Kral was convicted of violating the wildlife laws of the United States and sentenced to community service, fined and placed on probation, but not jailed.

The very rarest butterflies
Lotis blue Lycaeides argyrognomon lotis
Miami blue butterfly Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri
Saint Francis' satyr Neonympha mitchellii francisci
Schaus swallowtail Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus
Lange's metalmark Apodemia mormo langei
Palos Verdes blue Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis
Leona’s little blue butterfly Philotiella leona
Island Marble Euchloe ausonides insulanus
Also very, very rare
Mt. Charleston blue Icariacia shasta charlestonensis
El Segundo blue Euphilotes battoides allyni
Crystal skipper Atrytonopsis new Sp.1
Mitchell's satyr Neonympha mitchellii mitchellii
Laguna Mountains Pyrgus ruralis lagunae
Behren's silverspot Speyeria zerene behrensii
Also rare
Fender's blue Icaricia icarioides fenderi
Carson wandering Pseudocopaeodes eunus obscurus
Callippe silverspot Speyeria callippe callippe
Mission blue Icaricia icarioides missionensis
San Bruno elfin allophrys mossii bayensis
Myrtle's silverspot Speyeria zerene myrtleae
Quino checkerspot Euphydryas editha quino (=E. e. wrighti)
Smith's blue Euphilotes enoptes smithi
Uncompahgre fritillary Boloria acrocnema
Karner blue Lycaeides melissa samuelis

Rob Dunn is a writer and biologist at North Carolina State University. His latest book is The Wild Life of Our Bodies. He has written about the deadliest animals in humans’ evolutionary past, singing mice, rudeness, the discovery of the hamster, and many other subjects for Smithsonian.

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