According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), nearly one in five insect species assessed are under immediate threat of extinction. It’s estimated at least 160 insect species went extinct in the 20th century in the United States alone. Scientists have classified the current period of time as the Holocene extinction, the sixth mass extinction. While previous extinction periods were attributed to global change and natural disasters, most scientists agree the current extinction can be attributed to anthropogenic factors. Loss of habitat for human development, over harvesting, increased environmental pollution and widespread use of dangerous pesticides are responsible for the majority of species extinctions in the 20th century.
Despite this, eliciting public support for insect conservation can be daunting. The small size of the animals, coupled with people’s fear of insects make conservation outreach work an uphill battle. Butterflies are perhaps the one group of insects almost universally loved and appreciated by the general public. Taking advantage of the public’s appreciation of butterflies, the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium in Toledo, Ohio, has taken a multi-faceted approach to local butterfly conservation through research, rearing in managed care, education and habitat creation. While zoos have historically excelled at rearing, little attention has been paid to local habitat conservation. Through our butterfly conservation program, Toledo Zoo & Aquarium engages in traditional rearing in managed care of the federally endangered Mitchell’s satyr and Karner blue butterflies, as well as the monarch butterfly, and works on active biological research that examines changes in habitat quality for the Karner blue butterfly. A unique aspect of the conservation program is a focus on creating local habitat through the Zoo’s Wild Toledo native prairie initiative. The Zoo began an effort to increase local habitat and educate the local community on the diversity of organisms in their own backyard in 2013. Through the Wild Toledo program, approximately 30 acres of previous brown-field and mowed lawn habitat in the Toledo area have been converted to prairies. These diverse prairie ecosystems in the heart of urban Toledo serve as resource-rich sites for numerous pollinators.
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) serves as the ambassador species for the butterfly conservation program and prairie initiative. Monarch populations have shown a precipitous decline in the past decade through loss of habitat in both their summer and winter ranges. In 2014, the Toledo Zoo & Aquarium began a rearing program in hopes of increasing local population numbers and providing hands-on conservation in action demonstrations for our patrons. During the first two years we were able to successfully breed, tag and release over 1,500 monarchs for fall migration. Through our monarch adoptionprogram Midwest to Mexico and daily monarch releases in our award-winning Nature’s Neighborhood children’s area, Zoo employees engage the public and inspire our patrons to take action to help monarchs and other pollinators. The Midwest to Mexico campaign has completely funded monarch rearing efforts in the past two years and garnered national attention as nine of our monarchs were recovered at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico.
The Mitchell’s satyr (Neonympha mitchellii mitchellii) is a small (1 ¾” wingspan) federally endangered butterfly historically native to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey. The current satyr range is restricted to 13 small populations in Michigan and two in Indiana. Satyrs are limited to specialized wet habitats called fens—wetlands created by groundwater seeps and springs. Fen habitat decreased throughout the 19th and 20th centuries through widespread draining, ground water pollution and increased aquifer usage. Partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Toledo Zoo & Aquarium is working to reestablish Mitchell’s satyr at a restored fen in Indiana. Over 300 eggs were laid in 2015 with approximately 160 larvae hatching and progressing through the summer to enter dormancy in the fall. In the spring of 2016, the Zoo successfully released 75 adults to supplement a current satyr population. With rearing continuing in 2017, the Zoo anticipates releasing approximately 100 individuals to establish the first new satyr population since its listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Karner blue butterfly (Plebejus melissa samuelis) is another federally endangered butterfly native to the Great Lakes region. Toledo Zoo & Aquarium has a long history of involvement in Karner blue butterfly recovery, including rearing efforts which began shortly after the Karner’s ESA listing in 1992. Today, Zoo biologists are continuing their Karner blue butterfly work by conducting ecological research in new potential release sites and providing management guidance for area land managers working to increase Karner blue butterfly habitat. The Zoo’s rearing program also continued in 2016 with plans to expand and establish new Ohio populations in the coming years.
Staff biologists recognize that a recurring problem in conservation public outreach is the perceived futility of many conservation activities. While most patrons won’t have a chance to see a federally endangered butterfly in the wild, many have a personal memory involving a monarch butterfly. With monarchs as an ambassador species, we are able to generate genuine interest and enthusiasm for all aspects of insect conservation. The keys to our butterfly conservation initiative are education and then eliciting action from our patrons, however small that action may be. The small actions of many can have important impacts over time. We encourage our approximately one million annual visitors to join us in creating pollinator and butterfly habitat by planting native plants and starting their own butterfly gardens. A garden as simple as a few milkweed and some native sunflowers has the potential to show immediate results (monarch oviposition) and is a cheap and easy way to become involved in butterfly conservation. Bringing a little piece of their zoo adventure home and observing butterflies in their own garden can have lasting impacts on our visitors and aid our efforts in caring for the natural world.
Dr. Ryan P. Walsh is the Wild Toledo coordinator at the Toledo Zoo.
Kim Haddix is the communication coordinator at the Toledo Zoo.