Today’s Solutions: June 15, 2024

“We should care about butterflies because they are a part of the web of life…and they are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of ecosystem health.”  – Nick Haddad

By Kristy Jansen & Amelia Buckley

Chaos theory implies that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, it can cause a hurricane in Houston. But what if butterflies cease to flap their wings at all? Conservation biologist and author Nick Haddad has studied butterflies and other pollinating insects for 20 years and his new book, The Last Butterflies, explores his search for the rarest butterfly in the world and how we can revive critical insect populations. In his words, “I, as a scientist, get entangled in understanding why butterflies are declining and what we can do to set them on the right path to keep them from extinction.”

Haddad admits he has not always been fascinated by butterflies. As a young professor at North Carolina State University, he was asked to help with the conservation of two critical native species: the St. Francis’ Satyr and the Crystal Skipper, which sparked his interest in the field. Over the past 20 years, Haddad’s passion for these insects has grown and his book delves into the critical nature of butterflies not only for crop pollination and their role in the food web, but also for information about all types of insects and the synergistic health of the ecosystems they live in.

Butterflies hold cultural relevance as a symbol of transformation, romanticism and delicate beauty, but they are also the most widely studied insect and provide a case study for the intricacies of habitat preservation. Haddad explains that ecosystem preservation all too often relies on what he calls “freezing the landscape.” In other words, conservationists aim to keep environments undisturbed. Unfortunately, this approach denies species of interactions within the food chain that are often vital for their survival. For example, the Large Blue Butterfly, native to the United Kingdom, requires two inch grass in their habitat to thrive. When researchers placed fences around butterfly habitats to protect them, they prevented rabbit populations from grazing on the grass and therefore ended up hurting the species more than helping it.

Haddad says,

“Restoration of the rarest butterflies will not happen if the focus is on the rare butterflies alone. They are part of complex, degraded ecological systems. The most positive outcomes for restoration and recovery of the rarest butterflies have come only after the restoration of whole systems.”


On the other end of the spectrum, Haddad was surprised through his research to discover that some factors we would think harm species, are actually beneficial for their survival. Fort Bragg, a military base in North Carolina, is home to one of the rarest species of butterflies, the St Francis Satyr. Without the artillery range at the military base, this species would likely be extinct. The fires caused by the artillery range keep grasses rejuvenated and provide food for the butterflies. Haddad says this demonstrates the resilient interplay of endangered species with human activity and the importance of abandoning preconceptions when analyzing species and their environments. The relationship between animals and human activity is often more complex than it appears, and sometimes even beneficial.

Today, Haddad is busy as ever fighting for the health of butterfly populations. He works with farmers to add “prairie strips” to agricultural areas. These 20 to 40 foot strips of undeveloped areas in farmland provide habitat areas for butterflies and other insects which in turn help pollinate the fields around them. Additionally, these strips prevent erosion and reduce water contamination for an overall healthier ecosystem.

Haddad says, “The point is that, yes we need agriculture and the landscape of course, but with these natural areas, we can hopefully improve agriculture, but not just agriculture, we can improve the environment for people.”


Haddad works with large scale groups and habitats to help restore butterfly populations, but there are many small actions everyone can take in their day to day lives to nurture insect species. Haddad says the first step is buying a field guide to identify and appreciate your local species. Additionally, planting a garden, especially one with native plants such as Milkweed, provides food and shelter for butterflies and will attract these beautiful animals to your backyard. You can also join the effort to protect these species by participating in citizen science and reporting on butterfly prevalence in your area. Online sites such as Journey North, which monitors Monarch butterfly migration, allow users to report on local populations and provide data for researchers.

Declining butterfly and insect populations is worrisome for our crops and ecosystems, which depend on their role as pollinators and vital members of the food web. Across the world butterflies are being threatened with loss of food and habitat, as well as exposure to pesticides. However, Haddad is forever the optimist. He says, “I do think it’s not too late to reverse course. And I think we’re learning well, in my work and others, we’re learning how we can turn the tides and do it in places where people live. I mean, bomb ranges, for example. And see these insects, these butterflies, set on a better path.”

We are thrilled at The Optimist Daily to be able to offer an excerpt from Nick’s latest book, for those of you who wish to dive deeper into understanding the magic and opportunity for conservation and proliferation of some of natures most intriguing and lovely creatures.

A Book Excerpt: The Last Butterflies: A Scientists Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature

Excerpt: The Last Butterflies: A Scientists Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature


By Nick Haddad

The unique butterfly with which I have been associated has perhaps the best latinized name in all of science. Inglorius mediocris—loosely translated as the Mediocre Skipper—is small, with wings that measure about one inch across. It is brown, a color broken by a few specks the size and hue of sand grains. One could argue that this butterfly, among the thousands of plants and animals that might be termed mediocre in appearance, deserves its name. I would like to think that the name is comical (and perhaps it is), but more importantly, to me, the Mediocre Skipper was my first real contribution to the study of rare butterflies.

I never set out to be a scientist or a steward of the world’s rarest butterflies. I was not a young butterfly enthusiast. I never had a butterfly collection, and I do not remember raising caterpillars. I peg the start of my search for rare butterflies to 2001. I was a new professor at North Carolina State University. At that time, government agencies and conservation organizations were struggling to develop conservation plans for the state’s two rare butterflies, the St. Francis’ Satyr (Neonympha mitchellii francisci) and the Crystal Skipper (Atrytonopsis quinteri). They asked me to bring my expertise on habitat loss and on butterflies to the conservation effort. I willingly embraced this opportunity. I found these butterflies to be especially enticing because they lived in heavily fragmented environments. Apparently, landscape corridors would speed their recovery. These butterflies and their environments were just what I’d been looking for, a conservation setting in which I could put into practice what I’d learned from my PhD research. As a naive over-optimist, I thought that my scientific expertise was just the ingredient needed to promote rapid recovery. I was going to be these species’ savior.

A few years after I moved to North Carolina and started my studies of rare butterflies, I had a debate with one of my graduate students, Allison Leidner, about who was studying the rarest butterfly. Was it I, studying the St. Francis’ Satyr, restricted to thirty-five acres on an artillery range in one army installation? Or was it Allison, who was studying the Crystal Skipper, restricted to a thirty-mile-long by 150-foot-wide strip of sand dunes on a barrier island? I am competitive, and I was determined to win this debate. The army thwarted my efforts, as at that time they would not let me into the artillery range to count the St. Francis’ Satyrs. As I could not win, I moved on to find a different butterfly to study that might have been even rarer. My decades-long search for the rarest butterfly had begun.

I have studied rare butterflies for nearly two decades. It turns out that the special window opened by the rarest butterflies has given my science and worldview a unique perspective. These rare butterflies reveal the diversity of life and the potential for loss. Butterflies are the best-known group of insects, and their loss portends that of many other insects that comprise the vast majority of earth’s diversity (excluding microorganisms). In this book, I stitch together stories about the discovery, science, threats, and conservation of the rarest butterflies in the world. While writing these chapters, I sought general insights into causes of butterfly decline and prospects for these insects’ conservation and recovery. The lessons I extracted are applicable to other rare plants and animals, not only to butterflies.


What will it take to recover the rarest butterflies? I am an optimist—some might even say an over-optimist—who sees a world of possibilities for rare butterflies. This motivated me to step into the world of the rarest butterflies in the first place, as I was confident that I’d bring science and conservation to stabilize and increase population sizes. While my journey has at times chipped away at my optimism, I have been inspired by the stories of each of the rarest butterflies. These stories have shown that real conservation and recovery can be achieved.

Nick Haddad, Chasing Butterflies
Author Nick Haddad, Chasing Butterflies

Given that we have low and declining populations of the rarest butterflies, how do we reverse course? As a result of my search, I see four elements of change: investment in the science of natural history, adoption of restoration of whole ecological systems, incorporation of basic ecological principles in land conservation, and harmonizing landscapes occupied by rare butterflies and people. All of these elements presuppose interest by the broad public in conservation of butterflies and pollinators.

A surprising aspect of successful conservation of the rarest butterflies has been discovery in the often-ignored area of basic natural history. This is not sexy science, and we often assume such knowledge is in place, even when it is not. Where research and conservation attention has focused intently on natural history, there have been strong moves to stabilize populations that have been in decline. For example, key elements of conservation worked well for the Schaus’ Swallowtail, such as greenhouse rearing. I can make a more ambivalent case for the Large Blue in England; the dedication and persistence of scientists to understand its natural history awes me. The lesson I learn from the Large Blue is that it is never too early for proactive science to flip the trajectory of rare and declining butterflies through an understanding of their natural history.

Butterflies that are most likely to benefit from investment in understanding their natural history are those whose populations have declined precipitously, even though their habitat appears intact. Here I am thinking about widespread species such as the Miami Blue in the 1980s and the Poweshiek Skipperling in the 1990s. It is still not known how these widespread and abundant species were reduced to small population ranges and numbers almost overnight. Large swaths of their habitat appeared to be intact, but some unknown environmental change transformed their environments. Solutions to events like these will put the butterflies, and their ecological systems, on track toward recovery.

A female Karner Blue butterfly | Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A female Karner Blue butterfly | Photo credit: USFWS Midwest Region / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Restoration of the rarest butterflies will not happen if the focus is on the rare butterflies alone. They are part of complex, degraded ecological systems. The most positive outcomes for restoration and recovery of the rarest butterflies have come only after the restoration of whole systems. For the Fender’s Blue, such an outcome occurred after restoration of grassland systems with fire. For the Bay Checkerspot, it has come after restoration of serpentine grasslands by removal of invasive species. For the St. Francis’ Satyr, it has come after restoration of entire wetland ecosystems. In each case, restoration has focused on the ecosystem first. This has had the benefit of restoring degraded systems not only for one butterfly species; many other plants and animals, including rare species, benefit as well.

A theme that is repeated time and again for the rarest butterflies is that landscape conservation must apply basic ecological principles related to the area and interconnection of habitats. As the habitat area available to each species is small, more area is needed. Incremental increases in habitat area will have a noticeably large effect on populations of the rarest butterflies. Another critical element of rare butterfly conservation is a focus on metapopulations. Butterfly population sizes naturally fluctuate between high and low levels. Disturbance magnifies these fluctuations, as it creates better habitats in the future, but at the expense of some individuals. The butterfly population will persist only if butterflies can recolonize disturbed areas, with migration coming from neighboring populations. This will happen only if populations are near enough to permit dispersal. A critical aspect of landscape conservation is to protect nearby areas and landscape corridors that connect populations.

Ultimately, I believe that the rarest butterflies do have a fighting chance for persistence because they can live in harmony with people. Indeed, they will have to. In some cases, butterflies perform best where people act, or should act, in their own best interests. The St. Francis’ Satyr might be extinct now if not for intense army activities within artillery ranges. The Crystal Skipper might be extinct if people always built their vacation homes on the edge of the beach (which would make houses vulnerable to hurricane damage). Fender’s Blue populations are growing in places where homes and farms are in view.

The rarest butterflies will stand or fall in areas where people change use of the land at the scale of their own land parcels. For many of the rarest butterflies, their populations occupy small areas measured in acres—the size of a house lot or a neighborhood or a farm field. That these areas are so small makes land conservation more feasible, and it brings people close to threatened species. Of course, the proximity to people exposes the rarest butterflies to multiple threats that act in concert to erode their populations. However, this provides opportunities for people to understand and mitigate threat. Again, a key element of conservation in such parcels is a concerted effort to conserve land that reconnects populations.

Butterflies will recover in landscapes occupied by people after multiple parties come to the table. The remarkable reversal of the population decline of the Fender’s Blue came about only because of combined and dedicated investment by scientists, conservationists, and land managers. Scientists fine-tuned their studies to address management issues. Conservationists fine- tuned their land management with the best available science. With this combined effort of deliberate and sustained science and conservation, recovery is possible.

In my book, I argue that the list of the rarest butterflies is lengthening and that the threats are becoming more numerous and more intense. However, even against the rising threats, there are signs that the ongoing, downward population trends of the rarest butterflies can be reversed. Saving rare butterflies from extinction can happen only with proper science that enables us to understand butterfly biology and with proper conservation that protects natural places and restores natural function to ecological systems

Excerpted from: The Last Butterflies: A Scientist’s Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature. By Nick Haddad. Copyright © 2019 Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.


About the Author: Nick Haddad

Author, Nick Haddad

Dr. Nick Haddad is Senior Terrestrial Ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology at Michigan State University and Kellogg Biological Station. For more than 20 years, he has been studying how plants and animals use corridors. He has worked in the largest and longest-running corridor experiment, the Savannah River Site Corridor Project, and he has studied natural corridors used by rare butterflies. His latest book, The Last Butterflies, will be available in June 2019.

Solutions News Source Print this article
More of Today's Solutions

Is putting your kid on time-out a good parenting tactic?

When Amy and Steve Unruh decided to adopt a four-year-old child from the Philippines, they anticipated challenges. They understood it would take time, as ...

Read More

Alcoholism drug may help restore eyesight

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the leading cause of blindness in adults, and scientists are hard at work finding a cure for it. There ...

Read More

Another period of world-changing discovery begins at the Large Hadron Collider

10 years ago, at the Large Hadron Collider in Cern, Switzerland, the world changed with the discovery of the Higgs boson, also known as ...

Read More

US reveals the “Blueprint”: a plan to entirely decarbonize transportation

The United States Departments of Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency have produced a much-needed Blueprint for decarbonizing the ...

Read More