The Karner Blue Butterfly
Lycaedes melissa samuelis
Walk into one of nature’s unique ecosystems in the Northeast, a pine barren, on a still, hot July day. You'll smell the aroma of pine. You'll sense the dryness of the air, and if you are fortunate, you'll see the fluttering of small iridescent blue wings against a backdrop of low-growing vegetation. You're in one of the very few places where you can see the rare Karner blue butterfly -- in one of the Northeastern pine barrens of New York and New Hampshire.
What is it?
The Karner blue butterfly (Lycaedes melissa samuelis) was first described more than a century ago in Karner, New York. It is a small butterfly, with a wingspan of about one inch. The male's wings are distinctively marked with a silvery or dark blue color.
Karner blues are found in the northern range of wild lupine habitat. Wild lupine(Lupinus perennis) is a small, often attractively flowered plant that occurs in pine barrens and oak savannas in New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. The Karner blue's habitat is likely to be a patchwork of pitch pine and scrub oak scattered among open grassy areas. Historically, a network of these openings among the trees was maintained by wildfire, and at one time the butterfly was found in this habitat in a nearly continuous narrow band across 10 states and one province. Today it has been eliminated from at least five of these states. In the Northeast today, suitable habitat for the Karner blue is found in the Albany Pine Bush of New York and the Concord Pine Barrens of New Hampshire.
Why are they so rare?
Habitat throughout the range of the Karner blue has been lost through human activity to suppress wildfire, cultivate forests and develop communities. The remaining habitat has been divided into small, separated segments. This fragmentation of remaining habitat prevents the Karner blue from moving and spreading, resulting in small populations that are isolated from each other. The Karner blue butterfly’s habitat needs are very specific and it is unable to adapt to the human-caused changes in its environment. Habitat fragmentation and loss, combined with the extremely small size of the remaining population, are the greatest threats to the Karner blue butterfly’s continued existence in the Northeast and elsewhere in the country.
New York's Albany Pine Bush, which once covered as much as 40,000 contiguous acres, has been reduced to 2,000 acres. These acres are dissected by obstacles to butterfly movement, such as roads and buildings, and are subject to disturbance by off-road vehicles and horseback riding. Elsewhere across the region, pine barrens have largely been destroyed by industrial, commercial and residential development; road and airport construction; and gravel and sand mining. Remaining habitat is threatened by encroachment of adjacent forests, conversion of barrens to pine plantations and other land management practices.
Why should we be concerned?
Since the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620, more than 500 species, subspecies and varieties of our nation’s plants and animals are known to have become extinct. In contrast, during the Pleistocene ice age, all of North America lost only about three species every 100 years. This recent, catastrophic loss of biological diversity is continuing at an unprecedented rate. Each and every species has a valuable ecological role in the balance of nature and each loss destabilizes that fragile balance. Once a species is extinct, it is lost forever. Experience has proven that many plants and animals have properties that will prove beneficial to humans as sources of food and medicine. With the loss of each species, we lose a potential resource for improving the quality of life for all humanity.
In addition, some species of plants and animals may indicate to us whether or not their environment is healthy. The Karner blue butterfly’s disappearance from fragile pine barren habitat tells us that something is wrong. Protecting pine barrens will affect not only the fate of the Karner blue butterfly, but also that of many other specialized plants and animals.
What you can do to help
Learn more about the Karner blue butterfly and other rare and endangered plants and animals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies and private conservation organizations are working on programs for protection and management of the Karner blue butterfly. Contact them and learn more.
All images, USFWS by (1) Ann B. Swengel, (2) Joel Trick, (3) Ann B. Swengel, (4) Ann B. Swengel