National Endangered Species Day 2022

Today, May 20, 2022, is National Endangered Species Day. Michigan is home to nearly 30 plants and animals that are listed on the federal endangered species list. MNA works to help these species recover by protecting habitat that is critical to their survival, and by educating the public about each of their crucial roles in the environment.

Learn more about one of Michigan’s rarest species below.

Poweshiek skipperling butterfly photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.

Saving a Rare Butterfly on the Brink of Extinction

One of the rarest butterflies, the Poweshiek skipperling, is truly on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the tall prairie grasslands and the prairie fens of several states and provinces in the upper Midwest, the tiny butterfly is now found only in a handful of sites in Manitoba and northern Oakland County, including an MNA nature sanctuary. Loss of habitat and other factors contributed to a decades-long—and now a relatively recent and rapid—population decline that has scientists scratching their heads and worried about what their disappearance may mean for other pollinators.

The globally endangered Poweshiek is now so rare that only 100 individual butterflies were counted in a 2021 census. Recovery plans—aided by an international partnership that includes MNA—call for captive breeding efforts to headstart individuals and increase survival to adulthood in order to build a reserve population that can be reintroduced to the wild. The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, and Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab are specifically collaborating within the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership to annually produce more individuals for wild releases in 2022 and beyond in what is known as ex situ or “offsite” conservation.

Ensuring genetic diversity in a managed breeding population is always a concern, especially when wild populations are so low. All of the Poweshiek that are being bred through this partnership in the United States were collected from sites in northern Oakland County. As the MNA sanctuary has been isolated from those sites, a female collected with MNA’s permission from our sanctuary is making significant genetic contributions to the whole—a critical component of species survival.

Dave Pavlik from the MSU Haddad Lab moves a Poweshiek skipperling caterpillar to its host plant at the John Ball Zoo hoop house, where the captive rearing program takes place. Photo by Lauren Ross.

“The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo, and MSU Haddad Lab sincerely appreciate the permissions granted by the Michigan Nature Association to help improve the prospects for Poweshiek skipperling conservation and recovery,” says Dr. Erik Runquist, Conservation Biologist, Minnesota Zoo, one of the ex situ lead scientists.

Poweshiek P21.3, as she is scientifically known, or “Penny” by some, successfully laid eggs in the fall of 2021 after pairing with a male that was captive-reared at the Minnesota Zoo and before being safely returned to the sanctuary from which she was collected.

A Poweshiek skipperling pupa in captive rearing. Photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo.

Penny’s progeny will likely be used for further ex situ cross-breeding to enhance genetic diversity. But her story informs the path forward. To keep the Poweshiek from going extinct requires a multi-pronged conservation intervention to rebuild the population including management efforts to sustain the remaining habitat the butterfly requires, restoring other suitable habitat, and captive breeding to ensure there is a population left to reintroduce should the wild population blink out.

MNA’s contributions, and that of Penny’s, are a critical part of bringing the Poweshiek back from the brink with lessons learned for other rare species that inhabit prairie fens.

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