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.

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About Michigan Nature Association

The Michigan Nature Association is a non-profit organization that has been dedicated to preserving Michigan’s natural heritage since 1952. MNA protects more than 10,000 acres of land in over 170 nature sanctuaries throughout the state of Michigan, from the tip of Keweenaw in the Upper Peninsula to the Indiana/Ohio border.