Endangered butterfly is a “canary in the coal mine” for water quality in Michigan | Michigan Radio
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Endangered butterfly is a “canary in the coal mine” for water quality in Michigan

Jun 11, 2019

The race is on to save one of the world’s rarest butterflies.

The Mitchell’s satyr is an endangered species that can only be found in Michigan and Indiana. But biologists are working to conserve this butterfly’s native habitat and boost its population.

Daria Hyde is a conservation scientist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory at Michigan State University. She says that the Mitchell’s satyr might not look like much from afar but is “really quite lovely” up close.

“It has a warm, brownish hue and when you look more closely, there’s about four or five eyespots on the bottom wing and a few eyespots on the underside of the top wing that are black. But they have little iridescent, silvery markings in the middle of the eyespot, and they’re encircled in a golden color,” Hyde said. “Then all of those eyespots are encircled by some orange bands that are quite brilliant.”

The Mitchell’s satyr was once known to exist at about 30 sites in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and New Jersey, but Hyde says that now, that number has decreased to just 10 sites in Michigan and one in Indiana. Of the 10 Michigan sites, only six are considered viable.

The butterfly is native to the “prairie fen,” a rare type of wetland habitat found in southern Michigan characterized by cold, calcium-rich groundwater that Hyde says supports a range of unique plants and animals.

She notes that human development and urban encroachment has caused these prairie fens to become increasingly fragmented, modified, or “downright lost.”

“Whether it be the filling of wetlands, or putting a road through one of these prairie fens, or the depletion of this really important groundwater, it’s just been one thing on top of another and these habitats have become quite vulnerable,” Hyde said.

But Hyde says that she does “have some hope” for the Mitchell’s satyr, citing ongoing conservation efforts like habitat restoration, groundwater preservation, and raising the butterflies in captivity for eventual release at more protected sites.

"I would like my grandchildren to be able to see this beautiful butterfly, and it makes me sad to think that that may not be a given," Hyde said. "So I'm working very hard alongside many other dedicated professionals and private citizens to make sure that doesn't happen." 

The peak of the Mitchell’s satyr’s flight traditionally happens around the Fourth of July, but Hyde notes that climate change has caused the species to fly a bit earlier each year. For those who are hoping to catch a glimpse of these butterflies in the wild, she recommends checking out the Sarett Nature Center near Benton Harbor.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Isabella Isaacs-Thomas. 

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