Wildlife Conservation Grants for Graduate Student Research
Saving Butterflies

By Sandra Whitehead

Katherine Beilfuss reaches for a butterfly at the zoo.

Katherine Beilfuss reaches for a butterfly at the zoo.

With about 18,000 butterfly species known worldwide, the extinction of one may not seem significant. But it could have tremendous, unforeseen consequences, says Katherine Beilfuss, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a nearly $2,000 grant from the Zoological Society to study regal fritillary butterflies.

This species is dwindling, and her work could help to save it from extinction.

“ I think it was scientist Paul Ehrlich who said that many rivets could pop off an airplane without consequence, but that eventually a rivet would pop off that would send the plane down.
You never know which is the crucial rivet. We need to be careful about each species,” says Beilfuss. “We don’t know exactly what its role is in the web of life. We can’t predict what other relationships will be disrupted if it is lost.”

Regal fritillary butterflies once flourished in the prairies of southern Wisconsin. Today only a thousand or so of the monarch look-alike remain in the state. In 1998, Wisconsin listed the regal fritillary as endangered.

Its demise may be a warning to us, says Beilfuss. “It’s like a canary in a coal mine. Its decline means that something is wrong in its (prairie) community.” Historically, prairies covered 2.1 million acres across the southwestern part of the state. The rich prairie soil has been turned into farmland. Now less than one-tenth of 1% of the original prairie acreage is left.

With such a drastic loss of habitat, we need to learn what it will take to save the remaining scattered patches of prairie and the wildlife there, says Beilfuss. So she set out to discover what conditions would be best for the health of the regal fritillary. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, she studied regal fritillaries at two 80-acre sites in Iowa County. She found these butterflies appeared more frequently and in greater numbers in areas with less shrub cover and more wildflowers, especially purple ones. Regal fritillaries love nectar.

Marking a regal fritillary butterfly

Marking a regal fritillary butterfly.

Beilfuss also studied their dispersal and movement by capturing, marking, releasing and recapturing these butterflies at seven sites near the border of Iowa and Dane Counties. Beilfuss and about 40 volunteers, ranging from teenagers to retirees, made numerous trips to the sites in the morning hours, when butterflies fly a bit slower. They scooped them up in nets and marked them by coloring in a white dot on the underside of a hind wing with a marking pen. Then a sliver marker was used to write a number on the dot.

To avoid traumatizing the captured butterflies, each was put in an envelope and placed in a cooler. “When chilled, they are less likely to bolt wildly when released. They fly more like butterflies that had not been caught, an important consideration in a study trying to document ‘normal’ behavior. We could put them on a flower, and they’d perch until they warmed up. We also got to take a good look at them,” she says.

In 359 captures, 222 individual regal fritillaries were marked, 192 males and 30 females. “You can tell them apart because the females are bigger,” explains Beilfuss. Also the markings on the underside of their wings are distinctive. Both have two rows of spots. On the female, both rows are pearly white. On the male, one is white and the other is orange.

Beilfuss’ results have practical implications, she says. They show land managers what to do to support the comeback of regal fritillaries and enhance remaining prairies: plant more wildflowers (especially purple flowers) and remove shrubs, for a start.

“It has been a tremendous experience for me,” says Beilfuss. “I feel I have really contributed something meaningful.”