Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Regal Fritillary Butterfly

The Vanishing Regal

(Photo By: Ray Moranz)

When we think of endangered species---if we think of them at all; we typically
think of our Nations greatest success story the Bald Eagle, or perhaps we think of
the Manatee---of which the legend of mermaids was born. Maybe for you it is the
Florida Panther that stirs in you a deep sadness at its possible demise. For me it is a
creature until a few summers ago I had not even heard of much less seen, and this
lovely creature calls our beautiful state of Missouri home. I am speaking of the
Regal Fritillary (pronounced Frit-a-Larry) unless you don’t mind strange looks
then you can pronounce it fri-till-ery rhymed with artillery )as I did for quite some
time. Although this beautiful butterfly does not evoke in us the soul stirring
patriotism of the Nation’s greatest symbol, or the mystery and myth of the
manatee, it nevertheless is a creature worthy of our admiration and protection.

My story took place a few summers ago, after receiving an email from the Idalia
Society(A wonderful organization based in KC for all you butterfly lovers)that a
gentleman by the name of Ray Moranz was seeking help with his dissertation
research of the regal fritillary butterfly in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas prairies.
I contacted Ray, and spoke with him about his research and offered to help out one
day that summer. He was doing a comparative study of the prairie habitat of the
regal fritillary; studying populations over a 2 year period of time on burned, grazed
and untouched prairies. I am intensely curious myself at this point, how the
different habitat types would affect populations of these beautiful butterflies. Ray
was grateful for any help I was able to give and after speaking with my husband
we set up a date to meet Ray and his assistant, Laura, in Nevada Missouri in July.
We made the decision to incorporate this adventure with our family vacation and
headed south. We arrived in Nevada, MO early evening just in time to have dinner
with Ray & Laura. He spoke at great length about his research, and studies.
His love of these creatures was apparent and his passion contagious. I could hardly
wait to get on the prairie and meet these beauties up close.

After a good night’s sleep we met up with Ray and Laura early in the morning.
Everyone decided that a large breakfast was in order, well, almost everyone. I had
serious doubts about a huge breakfast right before heading to the prairie, seems I
was the only one who remembered there are no trees on a prairie much less a
bathroom. I opted for a light breakfast, although no one else seemed to have
reservations about a hearty breakfast.

Our first stop was Taberville prairie, where we were greeted by two of Ray’s
assistants from MDC. At this point my body didn’t seem to care that I had ate a
“light” breakfast. A bathroom stop was going to be in order and soon. Imagine my
distress. I am faced with 4 people I have never met before, I am on a prairie, not a
bathroom or tree in sight, and my stomach decides to go haywire! Talk about bad
timing. I am fast reaching the panic mode when my husband suggested a clump of
grass. You have got to be kidding me!!! Are you envisioning this? After locating
what seemed to be a promising clump of prairie grass I managed to take care of
business ( don’t ask me how) and returned to the group in short order, all dignity
out the window. At this point it was grin and move on.

We drove for awhile further out into the prairie where Ray had areas previously
cordoned off for his research. We divided into two teams. It was Ray, I and one of
the MDC employees. My husband Joey went with Laura and the MDC volunteer.
After Ray gave us our instructions we headed into our designated areas. Ray was in
the lead scouting for butterflies, I was behind him with a clip board and pen
writing down species names as he spotted them, including what activity they were
engaging in, whether it was perching, nectaring, or flying etc...Ray seemed
somewhat impressed with my knowledge of butterfly species and an easy rapport
soon followed. I was completely intrigued by his studies. Behind us bringing up
the rear was our man from MDC carrying a large pole and a clip board, he used the
10 foot pole as a guide to document the prairie flowers within the perimeter of the
pole. This was my first time on a prairie and I was completely absorbed in
everything around me. My first sight of a Regal was one I won’t soon forget, truly
an apt name, for such a beautiful butterfly. From a distance they seem much like a
monarch. After a closer inspection the differences are obvious. As we walked
through the tall grasses, and brambles (yes, brambles, the prairies are loaded with
blackberries, and I paid dearly for not dressing appropriately) we continued to
startle Regal’s out from their hiding places near the ground. We spotted numerous
species, but none as impressive as these large orange and black beauties.
The other team which was out of sight consisted of Laura scouting butterflies, the
MDC volunteer documenting her findings and Joey using the pole to identify the
flower species. Now keep in mind, what my husband knows about wildflowers is
almost nil, he received a crash course in the flowers he was likely to see and
headed out pole in hand to document the best he could what flowers he seen. I am
sure all the while wondering what in the heck I got him into this time. We spent
approximately an hour and a half on this prairie. After meeting back up with the
other group we headed back to our cars and it was decided that Joey and I would
head back to the Hotel and pick up our daughter and nephew and drive further
south and meet up with Ray and Laura at another location. We arrived back at the
hotel packed up and drove to Lamar, Missouri.

We arrived in Lamar ahead of Ray and Laura, checked into the hotel. Got the kids
settled and started the second leg of our adventure. This time it was to Bethal
Prairie. By now the gorgeous weather we had earlier in the day was giving way to
typical Missouri July heat. Temperatures were fast approaching the mid 90’s and
the sun was blazing high in the sky.

We arrived at Bethal Prairie, this time just Ray, Laura, Joey and I. We divided into
two teams. Laura and myself; then Ray and Joey. After being given our
instructions Laura and I ventured into the prairie, leaving Joey and Ray behind. We
had not walked but 50 feet when I grabbed Laura and told her to stop, she was
absolutely covered in ticks, when I say covered, believe me I am not exaggerating.
I spent several minutes picking these pesky little critters off her, only to discover I
was in a similar situation. I too was covered. At this point I felt like a couple of
monkeys on the prairie picking pests off each other. This was only the beginning,
we walked for what seemed like miles, in the heat, picking ticks, and scrambling
through blackberries. It was at this point that I got the sneaking suspicion that Ray
sent us in this direction on purpose. Fortunately I have a great sense of humor and I
was able to persevere. We finally finished collecting data from this portion of the
prairie. We reached a barb-wired fence, with mowed grass on the other side. I
knew exactly how a cow felt when they decided to test the grass on the other side.
We had two options at this point, one was to continue on the prairie fighting
blackberries and sumac, not to mention the ticks, or we could climb the fence and
be free of this torture. For me it was a no-brainer. I climbed that fence in record
time. Only to discover; that Laura was struggling to get herself over the fence, it
was at this point it became apparent that years of farm life and scaling fences had
paid off. I managed to help Laura out of her quandary and we began our long walk
back to the truck. She was pleasant company and the walk passed in no time. We
climbed in the truck, and headed out to meet up with the guys on the other side of
their portion of the prairie. After more climbing, this time a gate. We met up with
the guys near the end of their trek. If it was at all possible, Joey and Ray seemed
almost invigorated after their walk in the prairie. I knew it…Ray DID send us to
the nasty portion of the prairie. I was still finding ticks!

We drove back to get our car, and it was at this point that I realized that I fought
the blackberries and they won…my ankles were completely swollen and red,
covered in scratches that were bleeding. That will teach me to listen when I’m told
to wear long pants on the prairie; there is good reason for this advice. I could
blame no one but my own stubborn self, and my desire to be just a bit cooler in the
July heat that everyone else that was present. It was days before the redness and
swelling went down and weeks before the scratches healed. It was a daily reminder
of our adventure into the prairie, seeking these elusive regals.
(Photo By: Ray Moranz)

These butterflies are quite large with a wingspan of 2.9 -3.8 inches. They have the
very similar markings of orange and black such as the familiar monarch. The
similarities end there, upon closer inspection the hindwings are quite different;
dark above and covered with white spots below. The forewings possess short dark
lines running crosswise to the wing veins, unlike Monarchs who do not possess
these lines. The females have a dark patch at the wing tip and a row of small white
spots along the outer margin, on the upperwing ; the spots are pale yellow, whereas
the males spots are white on the inner row and the outer row is orange.

The regal fritillary is listed as a species of concern in Missouri.

The main reason for this is loss of habitat. The tall grass prairie is the only known
habitat for these butterflies. With only approximately 2% of our prairies remaining
in the state of Missouri, and most of the prairie states that call home to this
butterfly are in similar situations. It is a fight for survival for the regal. That is why
it is so important that research such as what Ray is doing be carried out. If his
research brings with it; better managed prairie habitat and a wider awareness of the
needs of these butterflies then it is possible that these flying flowers may be with
us for many more generations.

The needs of the regal are very specific; the only acceptable host plant for the larva
is the violet. The female after breeding will fly to the ground and walk among the
vegetation laying eggs willy nilly, up to 2400 eggs can be laid by a single female.
Once the eggs are laid they will hatch in the fall, and the resulting caterpillar will
overwinter in the prairie under vegetation. In the spring these hungry little eaters
will begin searching for their host plants and start feeding. If violets are in ready
supply they will grow rapidly. One problem is the managed burns on prairies, if
done too soon; the young larva will surely perish in the fire. Other reasons for the
decline of these butterflies are possible; everything from habitat loss, to disease,
the use of chemicals, and the haphazard egg laying practices of the female, make it
a candidate for problems. By looking at populations on these different types of
managed prairies, over a period of years, it will be in all likelihood possible to help
the populations of these butterflies grow, or at the very least stay stable.

It would be a great loss indeed to ever lose these great flyers of the prairie. Many
times in our lives we become so busy with day to day living that we find it hard to
think about such small matters as the loss of one butterfly. Sometimes we may
even find ourselves saying that if the loss of one butterfly means the greater good
of commerce by supplying us with more strip malls and farm land, then it is a loss
worth taking, I say hogwash! We should never become so arrogant or conditioned
to let ourselves think in such a way. After all once we lose something so beautiful
it is too late to get it back. Imagine the world today without the bald eagle, (which
was once hunted as pest). For me the world without the regal fritillary would be a
sad one indeed.

Let me encourage you to venture out and explore the prairies, and
see if you too aren’t immediately drawn to the wonder that is the prairie, and the
beautiful flying flowers that call it home.

No comments:

Post a Comment