November 20, 2019
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Regal Fritillary butterfly finds haven at Pennsylvania military base

Hundreds of people come to the Fort Indiantown Gap military base each summer to catch a glimpse of some special flights. … But not that kind. “Is everybody excited to see some butterflies today?” The 17,000-acre National Guard training center in central Pennsylvania is home to a rare species of butterfly: the regal fritillary. It’s the insect’s only known habitat in the eastern U.S. Every summer, the base opens its doors so the public can see them. Wildlife biologist Mark Swartz leads the tours. Alright everyone, convoy’s about to leave. Updating numbers for the butterfly tour. And it does take a massive amount of coordination. I have a lot of interns working this too. It’s great because it is legitimate ecotourism. On this day, the Air Force didn’t get the memo about the butterfly tour. Swartz had to tell them to re-route their training flights at the last minute. That’s why I was a little upset that this—that there was a problem because there—they’re shooting. There you go. That’s a 50-caliber machine gun. This base might seem like an odd place for rare butterflies. But military lands often aren’t hospitable to lots of people and development. So they can become sanctuaries for plants and wildlife. So these are alive? And you’re going to let them go? The regal fritillary likes it here because it likes meadows. It likes disturbed habitat. Its host plants almost all rely on some form of disturbance, some form of land-clearing activity. That ‘disturbance’ can take many forms— like bombings or fires. There may also be tanks and other military vehicles that go in and tear up the ground that essentially set back what would turn into trees back into a grassland. This is Michael Bean’s second time trekking through the grasslands at Fort Indiantown Gap. He drove up from Washington, D.C., for the day, just to see the regals. It’s heart-warming to see as many people as there are here today. I’d guess there are 200 people or more and that’s quite remarkable to come out to see a rare insect. The regal fritillary can still be found in the Midwest, but over the past few decades it has all but disappeared from the eastern half of the country. Scientists are still trying to figure out why. About 100 miles east of the base, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia is home to one of the oldest insect collections in North America. The records here help trace the story of the regal’s decline. Our earliest ones — specimens — are in this historic collection of butterflies and moths that was put together by Titian Ramsey Peale. He was the youngest son of a very well-known, prominent family here in colonial Philadelphia. His notes show he was able to find regal fritillaries in the city. We can see here in Peale’s handwriting, ‘collected in the vicinity of Philadelphia by TRP, Titian Ramsey Peale, 1831.’ The regal fritillary’s rapid decline fits into a broader pattern of biodiversity loss. In May, the United Nations issued a stark report showing human activities are harming more species than ever before. The report found around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken. Gelhaus says when it comes to insects, scientists have only given names to about 1 million species. They often form the basis of complex ecosystems, but many are disappearing before humans can find them. Our estimates are anywhere from that it could be 7 million, 10 million species out there, coexisting with us on this Earth, that we haven’t even characterized scientifically, let alone know anything about them. And pollinators, like bees and butterflies, are especially important to humans, because they play a critical role in food production. We’re not just protecting nature for some kind of ideal intrinsic value, ‘it’s wonderful, we’re protecting nature, aren’t we good?’ These things actually do things for us. This is a disturbance-based plant … Back at Fort Indiantown Gap, Swartz says he feels lucky the military is supportive of the conservation efforts. He’s also working with other researchers to reintroduce the regal fritillaries to new habitats in the region. We’re trying to make it so the species will not go extinct here and will not have any issues here. So yeah, it’s depressing, but I have hope.

Tony wyaad