The butterfly and the buckwheat

Corey Kallstrom, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (left) and Dr. Daniel Thompson, associate professor at  the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's School of Life Sciences, examine a sulphur buckwheat at the Spring Mountains, Nevada. Credit: Enrique Villar/USFWS

Corey Kallstrom, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (left) and Dr. Daniel Thompson, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's School of Life Sciences, examine a sulphur buckwheat at the Spring Mountains, Nevada.  The Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly depends heavily on this yellow, flowering plant from birth until new eggs are laid the following season. Credit: Enrique Villar/USFWS

Understanding a 'sky island' plant might be the secret to saving Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly

By Pacific Southwest Region external affairs staff
October 26, 2018

“The butterfly and the buckwheat” may not sound like a match made in heaven, but the Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly depends heavily on this yellow, flowering plant from birth until new eggs are laid the following season.

The Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly only flies for a few weeks in the summer each year. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

The Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly only flies for a few weeks in the summer each year. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has partnered with biologists at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and U.S. Forest Service to find out more about this elusive butterfly and allocate resources to aid this rare species

“They only fly for a few weeks each year,” said Dr. Daniel Thompson, associate professor at the School of Life Sciences at UNLV. He and his students have been doing research on this Spring Mountains butterfly species since 2010.

Studying the Spring Mountains dark blue is difficult, noted biologists. They are found nowhere else in the world and have scarce populations.

“The Spring Mountains is a sky island,” explained Corey Kallstrom, a biologist for the Service. “It’s isolated from other mountain ranges by the intense desert heat in the summer just as an island in the middle of the ocean would be isolated by the surrounding sea.”

Thompson and his team have discovered that almost every stage of the butterfly’s life is linked to sulphur buckwheat, which to most may be an unassuming plant.

Every seven to ten days in the summer, Dr. Daniel Thompson, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s School of Life Sciences, leads a team on regular Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly population surveys. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

Every seven to ten days in the summer, Dr. Daniel Thompson, associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s School of Life Sciences, leads a team on regular Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly population surveys. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

As a caterpillar, the butterfly feeds exclusively on the yellow, white or pink flowers of this plant for about two weeks. As they mature, they go to the base of the buckwheat to form their cocoon, which provides protection for the pupa until it emerges during the warm seasonal rains.

Mandy Mountain, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas research assistant for Dr. Thompson, takes pride in her research that could help develop conservation efforts for the Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly. Credit: Brittany Loeffelholz/USFWS

Mandy Mountain, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas research assistant for Dr. Thompson, takes pride in her research that could help develop conservation efforts for the Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly. Credit: Brittany Loeffelholz/USFWS

No sulphur buckwheat means peril for Spring Mountains dark blue populations; and threats to this plant species are high – from being trampled by people or animals off designated trail paths to getting run over my motorized vehicles.

Discovering more about the butterfly and its companion species is a crucial element in the conducted research.

“The more you know about a species, the more you’re able to help with conservation efforts,” said Mandy Mountain, one of Dr. Thompson’s students. “The butterflies are tied to the ecology of the Spring Mountains.”

U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Charles Woodard adds, “Conservation in this area is interdisciplinary; what helps the butterflies also helps the thinning piñon pine and juniper trees, which helps create a rich soil for growing nectar; providing plants for butterflies and other animals in the area.”

Surveys and genetic testing are also measures being taken within the research of the Spring Mountains dark blue; however, more studies need to be done in order to make necessary decisions about land management and conservation.

Working together is key when helping the survival of a rare species, according to Woodward.

“Our partnerships help us provide a quality service,” he said. “Without collaboration between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and UNLV, these services and conservation efforts wouldn’t be possible.”

The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, nearly 12,000 feet of mountain range that extends for about 16 miles in southern Nevada, is a popular destination for residents and visitors of the area throughout the year. Credit: Enrique Villar/USFWS

The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, nearly 12,000 feet of mountain range that extends for about 16 miles in southern Nevada, is a popular destination for residents and visitors of the area throughout the year. Credit: Enrique Villar/USFWS

Relying on it for food and shelter, the Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly shares a special relationship with the sulphur buckwheat. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

Relying on it for food and shelter, the Spring Mountains dark blue butterfly shares a special relationship with the sulphur buckwheat. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

Corey Kallstrom (right)and Dr. Daniel Thompson pose for a photo after completing a research mission to the Spring Mountains. Partnerships between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and others are important due the uniqueness of each agency which allows them to pool resources and expertise together. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS

Corey Kallstrom (right) and Dr. Daniel Thompson pose for a photo after completing a research mission to the Spring Mountains. Partnerships between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and others are important due the uniqueness of each agency which allows them to pool resources and expertise together. Credit: Abdullah Alotaibi/USFWS