The Butterfly Effect

January 17th, 2013 by Barry Stringfellow

Meet the movement behind the miraculous resurgence of the El Segundo Blue butterfly.

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On a cool, overcast July morning, Travis Longcore, Science Director for the Urban Wildlands Group, walks at a brisk pace, his 6’5” frame bent slightly, scanning the landscape along a busy bike path in Redondo Beach, Calif. He casually names native flora, punctuated with their Linnaean taxonomy, “California poppy, Eschscholzia Californica...thistle sage, Salvia Carduacea...”

He stops to inspect a Coastal Buckwheat, Eriogonum parvifolium, next to a rusty trashcan at a beachfront parking lot. He beams with parental pride as he points out several endangered El Segundo Blue butterflies, silently flitting and feeding. “They’re known as a sedentary butterfly because they depend on one food source, but I totally underestimated their range,” he says, hunching to get a closer look at the intrepid Lepidoptera.

As he watches the blue-hued butterflies in silent reverence, two mothers shepherd their texting, iPodded kids into a parked mini-van a few feet away and hurriedly drive off – oblivious to the small miracle right under their noses.

The El Segundo Blue Butterfly (ESB) was put on the Endangered Species list in 1976. By 1984 its numbers were estimated as low as 400. Today, some estimates put the population over 100,000. Although Longcore thinks this number is optimistic by a factor of four, the evidence fluttering before him confirms that the El Segundo Blue is growing in number and geographic reach – both critical factors in its survival.

The existence of these thumbnail-sized insects is the result of a mission that began over 30 years ago, when Longcore was a kid, roaming the woods of Maine. Years later, as a graduate student at UCLA, Longcore would take up the cause of El Segundo Blue and its cousin, the Palos Verdes Blue. Since then, he’s been a tireless advocate: attending countless meetings with myriad government agencies, scrambling for funding, creating plant nurseries, pulling weeds, writing papers, doing field studies, and enlisting and coordinating volunteers.

Longcore’s mentor at UCLA was Dr. Rudi Mattoni, a man he describes as “A brilliant, mercurial guy; a cross between Richard Feynman and the Pied Piper of Hamlin. He was a successful entrepreneur, a butterfly geneticist; he had a seat on the Board of Trade in Chicago and was a bond trader. He even wrote a book on how to deal with waste in space.”

On a March morning in 1994, Mattoni discovered a cluster of Palos Verdes Blue butterflies gamboling among deer weed at the Defense Fuel Support Point in San Pedro, California, 10 years after being declared extinct. A symbol of rebirth had miraculously emerged.

ESB and Palos Verdes Blue (PVB) are endemic to small swaths of land on the California coast, east of Los Angeles, about 20 miles apart. They’re entirely dependent on native plants – ESB on the Coastal Buckwheat and PVB on Deer Weed and Rattlepod. Both only have about a week to live as a full grown adult, PVB in early spring and ESB in high summer. With a few days to celebrate their winged glory, they come to the party nattily dressed, with luminous wings, gradated in hues of blue, indigo and violet, freckled with black ocelli, garlanded with black and white stripe. (ESB wings have more ocelli and occasional flourishes of orange.) With their comically large eyes, black and white striped antenna, proboscis curled like a fire hose and aquamarine “fur” thorax vest, both blues could fit seamlessly in a Dr. Seuss book or on the Funkadelic Mothership. (PVB and ESB being dimorphic, the males are brightly colored, the females, more crucial to species survival, blend in more with the landscape.)

When we think about some of the rarest butterflies in the world, we tend to think of a steamy jungle or a distant mountain range – not a patch of scrub on a military base. It’s an improbable, yet growing phenomena – in an increasingly urban world, undesirable real estate is giving a toehold to the native flora and fauna that proceeded it. PVB was ultimately rescued from extinction by the happy accident of deer weed sprouting on a military fuel depot. The largest colony of ESB lives on the El Segundo dune complex, a 200+ acre parcel that abuts Los Angeles International Airport. While hundreds of jets scream overhead each day, this swath of sandy scrub and abandoned housing supports at least 11 rare insect and plant species.

Cities, especially industrial districts, are often overlooked by conservationists. As cities inevitably expand, the need for urban dwellers to become aware of the fecundity and fragility of the native wildlife that surrounds them will only become more acute. To help fill this vacuum, Longcore started The Urban Wildlands Group, a non-profit co-founded with fellow UCLA grad student (and future wife) Catherine Rich in 1997. “The Urban Wildlands Group is taking on a dual challenge: first, the perception that urban areas have no valuable nature and second, to help save these species,” says Longcore.

The Urban Wildlands Group is not exclusively dedicated to butterfly conservation, but its work with these two charismatic blues is axiomatic of the ongoing battle they face. “There’s something special about butterflies and the human experience,” says Longcore, who is also the president of the L.A. Audubon Society and teaches at the USC Spatial Sciences Institute and the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability. “Butterflies are particularly good at being the inspirational center of people’s engagement with the natural world. Half of the endangered butterfly species are urban dwellers. We need to act or they’ll be gone.”

At the time of discovery, only 60 or so PVB’s remained. Mattoni initiated a captive breeding program at the fuel depot but PVB numbers fluctuated wildly. With only one colony, it was still extremely vulnerable. When Mattoni suddenly left for Argentina, Longcore, and The Urban Wildlands Group, stepped into the breech.

“The short term goal is to keep it (PVB’s) from going extinct. When it was just one colony at the depot, there were some real sleepless nights, especially in 2003 when they were down to single digits,” says Longcore. “Fortunately, Rudi had brought in Jana Johnson, a PhD student from UCLA. Jana told me she wanted to try some new things for the captive breeding program. We got her permitted and I told her ‘Go ahead, I trust you.’”

“It was a crazy time for me,” Johnson recalls. “I was struggling to get my doctorate, I was going through a difficult divorce and raising two very young boys.” She attributes the struggling blue butterfly for helping her get though her own struggles. “We held on to each other.”

Johnson took a maternal approach to PVB breeding. She started hand-feeding the butterflies, twice a day, with thumb-sized wads of toilet paper soaked with local honey and water. “When we did group feeding, a lot of butterflies would get excited and get their wings wet and that’d be the end of them.” Johnson says, with a hint of Texas twang.

By 2006, the program was thriving and Johnson started a second breeding site at Moorpark College, where she’s now a professor of biology. “I saw some space at the zoo where I could start a captive breeding site,” says Johnson. (Moorpark College has a teaching zoo, one of two in the nation.) “Travis got the funding and with the help of nine students, we put in constant care – monitoring the sunlight, the temperature, making sure someone was there in critical periods every day.”

That year, captive PVB population increased from 186 to 720; in 2007, it grew to 4513. Now the captive population is deliberately kept around 2100 – big enough for genetic diversity and small enough to manage. The Butterfly Project has been so successful that two more endangered species – the Lang’s Metalmark and the Laguna Mountain Skipper –have been added, and captive breeding programs across the country have adapted Johnson’s methods.

The unqualified success of the Butterfly Project at Moorpark is extinction insurance for PVB, for now. And as important as it is to increase the numbers of endangered species, it’s equally important to enlist the stewards who will protect them in the future. An effort started by Mattoni, realized by Longcore and expanded by Johnson has inspired future conservationists – a butterfly effect of sorts, spanning three generations.

Adam Clause was a student of Johnson’s. He’s now doing post-graduate work on a Presidential Fellowship at the University of Georgia, “Jana’s passionate about what she does and that really struck home with me – the passion and the values that go along with conservation science,” says Clause. “I want to pay it forward so to speak. That’s something I want to emulate as much as I can.”

As the grass growing in the crack in the sidewalk reminds us, nature is astoundingly resilient. But in an increasingly urbanized world, awareness and action by man becomes increasingly important. “Conservation is not just discussing the problems and writing papers. Talk is cheap, let’s get it done and not be paralyzed by the fact that we don’t know everything. We can still make pretty good choices based on what we do know,” says Longcore.

At the end of the day, it’s the quiet, behind the scenes work done by Longcore and a long line of conservation cohorts that, like the species it saves, often goes unnoticed.

Barry Stringfellow is a freelance writer based in Hermosa Beach, California. He's contributed to Westways Magazine, Yankee Magazine and The Boston Globe, among others; he's also a Writers Guild of America member with numerous television and film credits.