Monday, July 15, 2019

Nick Haddad's "The Last Butterflies"

Nick Haddad is a professor and senior terrestrial ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology and the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Haddad applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Last Butterflies: A Scientist's Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature, and reported the following:
Two threads that connect The Last Butterflies, natural disturbance and the marriage of basic and applied conservation, are in full display on page 99. The butterfly featured on Page 99, the Miami Blue, is iconic in its rapid decline, its extinction, and its resurrection. Once widespread in southern Florida, it was considered extinct in 1992 in the wake of Hurricane Andrew. It was rediscovered in 1999 at Bahia Honda Key, only to die out there again in 2009. A second population was found in the Marquesas in 2006, which is now the only known population, leaving Miami Blues still vulnerable to hurricane driven extinction.

What I did not know at the time I travelled into the tropical storm on page 99 was the role of hurricanes, both positive and negative, for imperiled butterflies. Hurricanes have been implicated in butterfly extinction twice, once when the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane struck Schaus’ Swallowtail’s entire range, and again when Hurricane Andrew struck all remaining Miami Blues in 1992. In both cases, the butterflies were resurrected by later re-discovery. When a hurricane’s eyewall strikes, the wind and storm surge can completely wipe out local butterfly populations.

As with other natural disturbances featured in The Last Butterflies, hurricanes can also have positive effects. Distant from the storm’s eyewall, strong winds can fell trees that overgrow grasses and herbs that caterpillars need. The disturbance can be a regenerative force critical to healthy ecosystems, and to imperiled butterflies.

One central theme of The Last Butterflies crystallizes on Page 99. Basic scientists and applied conservationists must interact closely to pull the rarest butterflies back from the precipice of extinction. Inevitably, given so many actors working in different professional roles on urgent issues, opposing opinions clash.

Page 99 summarizes a poignant case of tension between academics and government agencies. To a lesser degree this issue arises with every butterfly in the book. Agencies carry responsibility for endangered butterflies and invest great effort in conservation. At the same time, we have learned repeatedly that aspects of basic biology are missing for the rarest butterflies. Simple questions (what plants do caterpillars eat?) are later learned to have incomplete answers; discoveries (for example, of a second plant species caterpillars require) arrive nearly too late. Just as applied conservation requires advances in basic science, basic scientists need to take cues from conservationists who have identified barriers and pitfalls in restoration. Knowledge does not flow down a one-way street; an ongoing exchange of knowledge between scientists and conservationists is essential to conservation of the last butterflies.
Visit Nick Haddad's website and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue