2012-09-28 / Schools
Bringing back the butterflies
In the last century, growing cities nearby have largely stripped the dunes of its sand in order to make glass and construct buildings. The supply was nearly wiped out in the years after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
As the sand was used up, the local ecosystem began to change, affecting the fate of native plants, animals and insects in the dunes, Johnson said.
One such creature is Lange’s Metalmark butterfly—a federally endangered species that Johnson and her students are now trying to save through The Butterfly Project, a captive butterfly-rearing lab based out of America’s Teaching Zoo in Moorpark.
“We’re dealing with endangered butterflies that are going extinct because of the actions of mankind, not naturalist extinctions,” Johnson said. “We are helping to save the species. With our overages, we are able to release butterflies back into the wild to hopefully stabilize the population.”
The Metalmark is one of three species of endangered California butterflies Johnson and her students are now trying to save. They are also working with the Palos Verdes Blue butterfly and the Laguna Mountain Skipper, which is native to Temecula.
Johnson originally established The Butterfly Project at Moorpark College in 2007 as a secondary breeding site for the Palos Verdes Blue, which was believed to be extinct in the 1980s until a small population was discovered in 1992 on the U.S. Naval Base in San Pedro, Calif.
In the 1990s, Johnson was a doctoral student at UCLA under scientist Rudi Mattoni, who started the first captive rearing program in San Pedro in cooperation with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy.
In 2003, Mattoni retired and Johnson took the project over.
Then in 2007, she opened the lab in Moorpark in cooperation with the college, The Urban Wildlands Group and the U.S. Navy.
On the brink of extinction
Johnson said captive rearing is a “last ditch effort” to keep the butterflies from going extinct.
“We wouldn’t pull them in unless they’re on the edge,” the professor said. “It all depends upon whether (the species) is in decline or stable. A comparison would be the California condor. Scientists wouldn’t pull it in (to rear in captivity) until they were sure it was about to go extinct.”
Each year, Johnson accepts about 20 to 30 student interns into The Butterfly Project, who then study and breed the insects.
Johnson and her team keep about 2,000 Palos Verdes Blue butterflies in captivity, and release about 2,000 more into the wild every spring.
“We’re hopeful we can reestablish new populations,” Johnson said. “There are groups, like the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, that work year-round on habitat restoration, to recover more land to be set aside for the Blue so we have places to release.”
Currently, The Butterfly Project is the only rearing site for the Metalmark, Johnson said.
“It is struggling really hard to survive,” she said. “While we were (in Antioch) last Labor Day weekend to collect some butterflies, the peak count was only 27 in the wild.”
Because of the extremely small population, The Butterfly Project can only release several hundred of the Metalmarks every year.
As for the Laguna Mountain Skipper, the team has only a few specimens in the lab. They hope to collect more next May for rearing, the professor said. Spreading the word
Last week Johnson and a few of her students were invited to speak about their program at The Mountain Mermaid historic garden in Topanga Canyon.
Bill Buerge, a nature enthusiast and owner of the garden, said he wanted to help Johnson spread the word about the endangered butterflies.
“She’s doing very important work,” Buerge said. “As a horticultural garden, one of our missions here is to help bring back the butterflies.
“They are arguably the most beautiful creatures in nature, and they’re great ambassadors for the insect world.”
California is home to about 200 different butterfly species. But because of urban development, several of the species are endangered.
Johnson said saving the insects is essential to preserving human life.
“They’re extremely important to the ecosystem,” the professor said. “We have to preserve biodiversity, because everything that happens in nature sets off a chain reaction.
“We want to make sure we’re not killing ourselves off.”