Magazine article National Parks

Tiny Dancer

Magazine article National Parks

Tiny Dancer

Article excerpt

The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly is slowly vanishing from the state that gave it its name. Can anything be done?

WHEN WRITER R.H. HEINLEIN DESCRIBED BUTTERFLIES as "self-propelled flowers," there's a good chance he was thinking of the Baltimore checkerspot. With its expansive wings, adorned with colorful orange and black crescents, the butterfly swoops and soars in the air like a secret garden that has grown wings. The species is quite common in eastern North America, particularly in the northern states, but over the past few decades, this tiny dancer has become imperiled in the southern part of its range. Experts in Maryland now fear the butterfly may vanish entirely from their state.

Situated on the eastern border of Washington, D.C., and Maryland and boasting more than 700 acres of wetlands, river, and a tidal marsh, Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens tells the story of the flora and fauna once native to the region. Although it's hard to imagine the Washington area without the towering columns and marble facades, Kenilworth Park reminds us that before the founding of our nation's capital, this region was home to beaver, muskrat, fox, deer, mink, and, once upon a time, the Baltimore checkerspot.

Like all butterflies, the Baltimore checkerspot's life cycle is an impressive and inspiring tale of transformation. In early summer, adult females lay eggs on the underside of a host plant. Weeks later, the larvae hatch and form a communal web where they eat, grow, and molt. When the first frost arrives, caterpillars fall to the ground; they spend winter rolled up in the leaf litter. In spring, they begin feeding again and enter their pupa (chrysalis) stage, spreading their wings a few weeks later as butterflies. Maryland designated the Baltimore checkerspot as the state insect because its orange and black crescents match those on the heraldic shield of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore. Those bright colors attract mates, but they also warn some predators that the butterfly is unpalatable. Like monarchs, Baltimore checkerspots ingest chemicals from their host plant that make the butterflies toxic and bitter tasting.

Historically, the butterfly was seen fluttering through 15 counties in Man - land during its summer flight season, but now its population has declined to fewer than 15 colonies in five counties. Despite the butterfly's brief life, it plays an important role in the ecosystem, pollinating plants and serving as a food source for other organisms, like wasps, birds, and spiders, that don't mind its bitter taste. The butterfly's symbolic and aesthetic values are just as important.

"The Baltimore checkerspot is arguably the most beautiful butterfly in the Washington, D.C., area," says Brent Steury, a natural resources program manager with the Park Service. "I have seen its beauty on only two occasions, many years ago."

For decades, the species was so uncommon that few people bothered to monitor it. "Now when we see a Baltimore checkerspot, we not only record it, but it's often posted online," says Jennifer Frye, invertebrate ecologist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources. "The habitat is evaluated, and additional steps are taken to prevent it from declining further." Fearing the species' extinction locally, Fiye and a group of others from county, state, and federal agencies teamed up with university professors, local schools, and nature center staff in 2012 to start the Baltimore Checkerspot Recovery Team. …

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