By Crystal Cockman
August 29, 2016
I recently caught up with Nick Haddad, the William Neal Reynolds Professor of Applied Ecology at NC State University, about a really rare butterfly he studies – the Saint Francis’ satyr. I wanted to know more about this species and its conservation status.
I first wanted to know what exactly is the St Francis’ satyr, what does it look like and who discovered it? Nick said that the St. Francis’ satyr is brown with a few thin, rusty-red strips and a row of small black spots. It is a small butterfly that lives in wetlands. It was discovered in 1983 by a soldier, Thomas Parshall, who was a young man training on a navigation course. He was an amateur butterfly collector who recognized a different form of butterfly, and soon after described it as a new entity. It is considered a sub-species. The other sub-species, Mitchell’s satyr, lives in Michigan, Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia. Its populations are very small and it is also endangered.
I asked Nick if it had any interesting behaviors. Nick said more than any other butterfly he has observed (about 1000 species and hundreds of thousands of individual butterflies), St. Francis’ satyr has one unique behavior: it likes to sit. Unlike other butterflies, it does not feed on flowers as an adult. It lives as an adult for on average 3-4 days.
What about their conservation status – are they endangered? The butterfly is federally endangered, and it is known only from Ft. Bragg. Its populations appear stable inside the artillery ranges. Their populations are smaller outside, and mostly declining. Where they are not declining, it is because of restoration efforts.
I had read that they are pretty much found only on Fort Bragg and that they utilize beaver swamps, and too much or too little rainfall can make habitat unsuitable for them – and that beaver disturbance and fire disturbance are necessary to create conditions suitable for them. Nick confirmed that what I read was true. St. Francis’ satyr lives in disturbed wetlands. Ft. Bragg has three features that are not (or nearly not) found outside: fire at natural rates of 1-3 year intervals; beaver populations that are mostly unimpeded; and few people in natural habitats (and no people in artillery ranges).
What it is about those conditions or that habitat that they need? I have heard that some butterflies/moths are tied to a specific species of plant as their host – is that true for them? Nick said that some butterflies are tied to one plant, others are able to eat more than one. St. Francis’ satyrs host plant is a sedge; it is found in wetlands following disturbance. They live in abandoned beaver ponds. Those wetlands will become forests if not flooded or burned. Dense forest is bad for St. Francis’ satyr. Nick said other species that are in decline in the same habitats are largely plant species, including endangered rough-leaved loosestrife; venus flytraps; sandhills fire lily, to name a few.
If fire disturbance and swamps are the key for habitat, why are they not found on some of the NC Wildlife Resource Commission’s Sandhills Game Lands also?Nick said they do not know exactly, and the gamelands is a target for future restoration and reintroduction. Until now, artillery has been key in replacing disturbances that were natural but suspended when humans arrived on the landscape.
Could they be somewhere else? How well have they been surveyed for?
Nick said that he doubts they are elsewhere, but that they are also located in hard to find places. St. Francis’ satyr was found in 1985. Populations of Mitchell’s satyr in Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi were found in about 2000. Although he would be shocked to learn of them elsewhere, there is some distant chance that they could be. The greatest problem to their occurring elsewhere is that — though there may be wetlands — they are not extensive enough to sustain populations through needed disturbance. This is a key characteristic of Ft. Bragg, especially the artillery ranges.
I asked Nick how are they being studied? What types of research is going on with them? He said there are many answers to this question. But, most importantly, they are conducting experiments to replicate disturbances by being like beavers: they create dams and remove trees. These are the only areas where St. Francis’ satyr are now found outside the artillery ranges. I read also that they were being captive-reared and Nick confirmed that is correct. He said these individuals are key, as they provide the seeds to restored populations.
He said the biggest threat to their continued survival is habitat loss, primarily through loss of disturbance. When asked if there is anything conservationist or landowners can do to help, Nick said for now, properly disturbing wetlands is key. This can happen through controlled burning that is allowed to burn through wetlands, and maintenance of beaver populations.
Nick concluded by saying that St. Francis’ satyr will not be found off Ft. Bragg until two conditions are met: 1) habitats are properly managed and 2) individuals raised on Ft. Bragg are released in other places. He said they are currently exploring opportunities with The Nature Conservancy, and the Gamelands are another great location. Still, off Ft. Bragg the process is a long one, and conservationists and scientists will have to work with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the proper procedures and permissions.
Special thanks to Nick Haddad for providing the information included in this article.
Picture at top is courtesy of Jenny McCarty. Picture at bottom is courtesy of Helen Haddad, Nick’s daughter.