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Threats to butterflies are many, and the long-term prospects for some species are not good. More...

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FLYING JEWELS: Butterfly Conservation Part 1

Connecticut has 117 species of butterflies.  Of those, close to one-quarter (22) are thought to be at risk.  At least three – the Hoary Elfin, Mottled Duskywing, and Regal Fritillary - are considered locally extinct.  They have not been seen in CT since 1986, according to the recently published Connecticut Butterfly Atlas.  

Pearl Crescent?
The CT Butterfly Atlas Project found that the most common species statewide is the Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). The adult on the right is unfurling its proboscis (pronounced prah-BAH-sis), which works like a straw.
Pearl Crescent

To compile the new Atlas, an inventory was conducted over a five year period.  In most of the towns in the Quiet Corner, no more than 10 different species were reported.  The surprising exception was Putnam, where 40-50 were seen. 

Seekers usually find the most butterflies in sunny, open areas like fields, meadows, marshes, railroad tracks, openings in woodlands, under power lines, and maybe even in your own backyard.  One lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies) recorded 73 species on his property in Hamden, CT.  

Butterflies are most likely to be active when temperatures are high, skies are clear, and winds are low.  As expected, they are often found where there are a lot of nectar producing flowers.  They also visit puddles, and some species actually feed on dung, and drink liquid from carrion (dead animals). 

The biggest threats to butterfly populations are loss of habitat and development, over browsing by deer, and biological invasions of plants and insects.

Loss of Habitat and Development: Butterflies love sunshine and thrive in the open.  Many make their home in grasslands and wetlands, both of which are being eaten up by development.  Other prime open habitat has transitioned into forest, as a result of fire suppression and a decline in agriculture.  Without regular mowing and grazing or periodic fires, vegetation tends to shift over time to shrubs and trees.   

Deer Overpopulation: When I mentioned to my husband that exploding deer populations were also negatively impacting butterflies, he asked “Why? Do deer eat butterflies?”  Sometimes when deer gobble up a plant, they do inadvertently consume attached insect eggs or larvae.  But a bigger problem is that deer graze selectively, which changes the number and types of plants in a given area.  If they eat plants that produce nectar, they are taking away an important source of butterfly food. 

Biological Invasions or Introductions of Plants and Insects: Butterflies undergo metamorphosis four stages, from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult.  Most butterflies lay their eggs on or near a host or food plant. When caterpillars feed on certain invasive plants like Garlic Mustard, they may die.  If they survive, their development may be slow. This makes them more vulnerable because it gives predators additional time to find the caterpillars.

Some insects that were introduced on purpose to control pests will prey on non-target species.  For example, the parasitic Tachinid Fly was introduced to control Gypsy Moths.  Unfortunately, it also attacks over 200 species of Lepidoptera (pronounced leh-pih-DAHP-ter-uh), an insect order which includes butterflies and moths.   

The Atlas notes that the threats to Connecticut’s butterflies are numerous, and the long-term prospects for many imperiled species are not good.  See next week’s article for steps that can be taken to help butterflies.  To get a copy of the Atlas, visit the CT DEP bookstore on 79 Elm Street in Hartford (open Mon - Thurs 9 a.m. - 1 p.m., and 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.), or buy one online at https://www.ctdepstore.com/splashPage.hg.

Also see Butterfly Conservation, Part II

Activity for children:  Get the quick reference guide “Butterflies and Moths” from DEP, and go on a butterfly watch.  Try raising a butterfly from a chrysalis found on a Milkweed.

Butterfly joke for kids: Why couldn't the butterfly come to the dance?  Because it was a moth ball!


The Top 15 most commonly "vouchered" (report verified) species in CT per The Connecticut Butterfly Atlas (CBAP 1995-1999 project data)

  1. Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)
  2. Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
  3. Peck's Skipper (Polites peckius)
  4. Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)
  5. Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)
  6. Yellow Sulphur (Colias philodice)
  7. Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia)
  8. Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comynta)
  9. American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)
  10. Tawny Edged Skipper (Polites themistocles)
  11. Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)
  12. European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)
  13. Great Spangled Frittillary (Speyeria cybele)
  14. Silver-Spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)
  15. Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris)

The Top 15 most commonly "vouchered" (report verified) species in CT PRE-Project - notice change

  1. Yellow Sulphur
  2. Pearl Crescent
  3. Spring Azure
  4. Orange Sulphur
  5. Cabbage White (non-native)
  6. Hobomok Skipper
  7. Meadow Fritillary
  8. Question Mark
  9. American Copper
  10. Eastern Tailed Blue
  11. Monarch
  12. Juniper Hairstreak
  13. Tiger Swallowtail
  14. Great Spangled Fritillary
  15. Little Wood Satyr


More Information on Butterflies (much is from the CT Butterfly Atlas)
Originally published in the Villager newspapers on August 17, 2007

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