Species Spotlight: Poweshiek skipperling butterfly

One of the world’s rarest butterflies, with fewer than one hundred remaining in the wild at recent surveys, resides right here in the prairie fens of southern lower Michigan. The tiny Poweshiek skipperling butterfly was once one of the most abundant butterflies in the Midwest, but habitat degradation and loss have resulted in the near extinction of this species throughout its range.

Conservation biologists have been working in recent years to recover the butterfly and its habitat—as detailed in MNA’s recent “Life on the Brink” mini-documentary—with assistance and funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The plight of the Poweshiek skipperling butterfly, however, extends beyond the borders of the state and is evidence of a greater ecological problem that affects many other species.

Poweshiek skipperling butterfly with survey markings on its wings sits on a black-eyed susan flower. Photo by Jason Whalen | Fauna Creative.

Unlike the distinctive orange and black markings of monarch butterflies, Poweshiek skipperling butterflies are small and brown, with few distinguishing features. The Poweshiek skipperling can be easily mistaken for one of their more common skipper counterparts like the European skipperling. Their small size also means that they are more likely to be stepped on than spotted, which presents a challenge for researchers who would like to raise awareness of the butterflies while simultaneously protecting their habitat from over-visitation.

The Poweshiek skipperling butterfly however is a symbol for the overall phenomenon of insect decline, not just in Michigan. Insects being the most abundant living creatures on earth, their decline and particularly a general lack of understanding of the cause of that decline is certainly reason to be concerned.

Researcher Dave Pavlik releases a Poweshiek skipperling butterfly that was part of the captive breeding program. Photo by Lauren Ross.

Fortunately, organizations like the Michigan Nature Association work to protect habitat for these species and participate in conservation efforts like those of the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership, all of which is guided and often funded by federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Endangered Species Act.

Michigan Nature Monday: Floodplain Forests

In southern Lower Michigan, the populated landscapes of farms, homes, and towns create predictable, right-angle patterns of human settlement when viewed from above.  But winding across and through those straight-line grids, meandering corridors trace the paths of streams and rivers.

These corridors often harbor something really important, a dynamic natural community known as a floodplain forest. Floodplain forests are a vital part of Michigan’s natural heritage. Periodic flooding, scouring, erosion and sediment deposition follow the rise and fall of water levels creating diverse microhabitats that are used by a variety of wildlife.

Land meets water in a floodplain forest. When that stream or river tops its banks, it reshapes the bottom lands with tree falls, migrating river channels, new sediment deposits or erosional scour. These actions create fluvial landforms such as natural levees, backswamps, oxbow ponds, and terraces – all associated with a particular type of vegetation.

The Thornapple River flows along the banks of MNA’s Thornapple Lake Nature Sanctuary as it empties into Thornapple Lake.

The flowing waters help the soils thaw earlier in the spring, meaning these are often the places where the first wildflowers bloom. Insects, invertebrates, reptiles, and amphibians appear almost simultaneously to take advantage of the food sources provided by these wildflowers. “These forests are often very important stopover or even nesting sites for declining neotropical migratory birds as well.” “Often they are the last forested strongholds in a lot of agriculturally-dominated landscapes and are therefore valuable for a variety of plants and animals.”

Threats to these impressive habitats are an all too familiar list – invasive plants and animals, hydrological modifications (levees, impoundments, channelization, dams), including those brought by climate change, habitat loss due to industrial, residential and agricultural fragmentation, and incompatible timber management. For those reasons, floodplain forests are both globally and state-ranked as vulnerable.

Copperbelly watersnakes are one rare species that use floodplain forests and other adjacent habitats. Photo courtesy Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

For sometimes being no more than a narrow, green edge along a river, the magnitude of floodplain forest benefits outweigh their seemingly limited size. Besides important habitat, they play a critical function in Michigan’s fight against climate change. When water flows across the land to a river, the floodplain forest serves as a buffer, absorbing both the quantity and the energy of that flow while filtering pollutants. Floodplain forests therefore help to protect the water quality in many of Michigan’s watersheds.