Rare Butterfly

(This column was first published in the July 5, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Betsy Potter of Niagara Falls is one of the area's finest amateur identifiers of birds and butterflies. She brings to her avocation an artist's eye. So when David Cooper received a call from Betsy asking him to accompany her to look in a field near her home for the soldier butterfly she had seen, he did not reject her suggestion out of hand.

    He would certainly have done so if the report had come from almost anyone else. The soldier had never before been reported in this region. It does not appear on the Niagara Frontier butterfly checklist carefully prepared by Robert Andrle and Cooper. And in Robert Scott's The Butterflies of North America the soldier's Latin American range extends only to the southernmost areas of Florida, Texas and Arizona.

    A visit from this subtropical butterfly would thus fly (this pun intended) in the face of documented evidence. But Betsy had videotaped the soldier and Willy D'Anna -- another excellent local naturalist -- had confirmed her identification.

    (At this point, as in some of the old mystery stories, you are invited to stop and guess the solution to this enigma.)

    So Betsy and David set out to investigate the field. The soldier looks much like a darker orange monarch butterfly. In this region it would be easy to separate from the monarch but in its normal habitat care would be needed to distinguish it from another dark orange subtropical species, the queen.

    They found no such butterfly.

    But as Potter and Cooper were walking back to their car a young man and woman drove up and asked what they were doing. When David explained their mission, the newcomers, who it turned out owned the field, provided the answer to this remarkable occurrence. They had just been married and imported butterflies had been released at their wedding. They had been told by their California source that the butterflies were monarchs.

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    A group of the nation's most senior butterfly experts has spoken out recently against transporting butterflies for release. Their statement (posted on the North American Butterfly Association website) offers a number of arguments against this practice. Among them are the introduction of parasites and diseases to wildbutterfly populations, inappropriate genetic mixing of different populations even when the same species occurs locally, confusing butterfly distribution (as it did in this case) and migration, and other possible deleterious changes in the local ecology. They note, in this regard, that the Hollywood Jurassic Park message, "Don't mess with Mother Nature," has scientific foundations. And they point out that even careful introduction of alien species for biological control sometimes causes unexpected negative results.

    They also point out that these releases have created a commercial market for live butterflies -- they currently sell for about $10 apiece -- with the result that monarch overwintering sites in southern California and Mexico are subject to widespread poaching.

    In response to all this these butterfly specialists call for a ban on "the environmental release of commercially-obtained butterflies." They would exempt educational institutions but would encourage teachers to keep imported butterflies carefully contained.

    Such a ban would not, of course, affect the nearby Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls, Ontario where the imported or locally raised exotic butterflies are kept strictly confined. (I note that this superb facility is well worth a visit at any time of the year.)

    I suspect that butterflies at weddings became popular after the motion picture Angels and Insects showed such a shower of delicate wings. But I concur with the butterfly experts who encourage throwing rose petals at weddings as an alternative to this release of alien butterflies. -- Gerry Rising


    I later modified my position on this issue based on communications from members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association. For that information and references, see my later column.