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Archive for Friday, May 25, 2012

A bumper crop of butterflies

‘Population outbreak’ a sight to behold

A Hackberry Emperor butterfly swoops in to join others on a rotten piece of cantaloupe left near the entryway of the Fitch Natural History Reservation north of Lawrence on May 22. Some experts believe the mild winter was cause for a population outbreak of this particular butterfly.

A Hackberry Emperor butterfly swoops in to join others on a rotten piece of cantaloupe left near the entryway of the Fitch Natural History Reservation north of Lawrence on May 22. Some experts believe the mild winter was cause for a population outbreak of this particular butterfly.

May 25, 2012

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Go anywhere near the Kansas University Fitch Natural History Reservation north of Lawrence, and you’re in for a treat. If you make it within the next week, experts say, you’ll be able to see firsthand tens of thousands of butterflies, the result of a “population outbreak” that resulted from a wide variety of factors, including the very mild winter.

Hackberry Emperor butterflies

The small butterflies are big in numbers near the entrance to Kansas University's Fitch Natural History Reservation. The area currently has a "population outbreak" — more are currently being seen there than ever before, according to some experts. But as predators take advantage of them as a special food source and their life cycles come to a natural end, the boom in butterflies won't last much longer. Enlarge video

Perhaps it’s better put that the butterflies themselves are in for a treat: you. That’s because it’s theorized that the thousands of male Hackberry Emperor butterflies need to consume salt to complete their sexual development. They can lap up salts from mud puddles and other sources, Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, said, but people’s skin makes a great source, too. This makes for swarms of very friendly butterflies. But the “amazing” numbers of butterflies aren’t just an impressive sight. They’re having a huge impact on the local ecology.

The Hackberry butterflies, named after the hackberry trees that make up the wooded area of the Fitch reserve, are a few inches across and have gray and brown markings. The caterpillars that eventually turn into the Hackberries have boom years occasionally, Taylor said, but this year is “particularly remarkable” with an explosion in population over a fairly limited geographical area, just about two miles square.

In addition, this year’s banner butterfly flock is very early — almost three weeks earlier than normal.

“I’ve seen a lot of outbreaks,” he said, “but this is as good as any I’ve seen.”

The Hackberry Emperor caterpillars were so numerous in the Fitch this year that entire hackberry trees were stripped of their leaves early, a rare feat. Mark Robbins, the ornithology collection manager at KU, said the diminished tree cover will lead to greater amounts of vegetation on the woodland floor. That’ll be aided by the decay of the butterflies’ bodies.

The exact reason for this year’s population outbreak isn’t known, but Robbins suspects that it’s cyclical, and that next year’s yield may be even bigger. In the meantime, researchers will keep an eye on how the unusual conditions may lead to changes in patterns of behavior in everything from plant species to migratory birds.

“Next year may be phenomenal,” he said. “It’s hard to say what factors lead to booms, but I hope next year we see huge numbers.”

Comments

irvan moore 1 year, 10 months ago

we just got back, it was well worth the drive and we saw a dead blacksnake but no live snakes so it was a good trip

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JayhawkFan1985 1 year, 10 months ago

This is great news! I'm going to take my kids out. There this weekend to see it.

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overthemoon 1 year, 10 months ago

I remember a huge population explosion of butterflies in the summer 1989 or 90. After very cold winters....seems a cycle of who's eating who?

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Lawrence Morgan 1 year, 10 months ago

This is an excellent article, photograph and video. They are very tiny on the video but very clear.

Pywacket, why don't you share some of your photographs in another comment? I'm sure many people would like to see them.

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Pywacket 1 year, 10 months ago

I've noticed an unusual number of MANY butterfly species and very early in the season. Lots of skippers, swallowtails, little blues, and many others. I've gotten some great pictures.

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