White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

The Alpine Tundra Environment Required by the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

The Alpine Tundra Environment Required by the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly

I was a member of a small group invited to Mt. Washington, NH this past weekend by Chris Rimmer, Director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, where he wanted to share the exciting research being done there.  I had hoped to get a really good look at the Bicknell’s Thrush, a species I had not seen in the wild well enough to count on my life list, although I have seen them in the hand while banding.  I struck out again on the Bicknell’s but my disappointment was more than erased by the fascinating work being done on the White Mountain Arctic Butterfly (Oeneis melissa semidea).

This student intern is searching for the Butterflies

This student intern is searching for the Butterflies

This butterfly is a holdover from the period of the last glaciers and has been trapped on the summits of the Presidential range since the tree line advanced thousands of years ago, invading the rocky, treeless Alpine habitat it needs to survive.  The climate is so harsh on the top of Mt. Washington that it takes two years for the White Mountain Arctic to complete a life cycle.  The adult butterfly lives for about eight days, during which time it mates and lays its eggs.  The larvae winter over under rocks, freezing solid for the winter and awaken the following spring to pupate and emerge as adults in early summer.  The larvae feed on Bigelow Sedge at night to avoid predation by birds, resting under rocks during the day.

This woman is marking the butterfly with non-toxic ink. She is doing research for her Ph.D on the White Mountain Arctic.

This woman is marking the butterfly with non-toxic ink. She is doing research for her Ph.D on the White Mountain Arctic.

We watched as researchers netted the butterflies and marked them with nontoxic ink, carefully logging the details of each one before it was released, unharmed.

The butterfly rests after being marked and studied. The pink ink spots indicate the location where it was captured. Its coloration allows it to blend with the lichen to avoid predators.

The butterfly rests after being marked and studied. The pink ink spots indicate the location where it was captured. Its coloration allows it to blend with the lichen to avoid predators.

The future of this butterfly is threatened by climate change as the warming environment allows the treeline to advance ever closer to the tundra at the top of the mountain.

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3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    […] of Mount Washington when we were up there watching the white Mountain Arctic butterfly studies.  [See this post]  The summit is a maze of rocks and closely spaced cairns marked the trail, as it was easy to go […]

    Like

  2. 2

    Kevin Stuteville said,

    The White mountain butterfly may not be able to continue to live on
    its two U.S. mountains in the near future because of global warming.
    I hope the species is flourishing in the northern reaches of Canada
    and Alaska. If not, some of the existing ones in the U.S. might
    eventually have to be flown very far north where the species has
    some chance of long term survival–the colder the better. This would
    require a very fast jet with chilled containers–total transportation
    times less than 24 hrs. because their breeding season is only
    one week. The other option would be collecting their eggs and
    keeping them very cool. This would allow more time to relocate them
    to a far north location. If they exist in abundance in the far north
    of Canada and Alaska, there would be no need to consider either
    option.

    Like

  3. 3

    Thank you for your comment. Sad but true. It is only found at the highest elevations of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and is dependent on its host plant Bigelow Sedge. Relocation is one of those conservation dilemmas. We have far too many of them today.

    Like


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