Spring is a short but sweet season in the Rocky Mountains; streams swell with snowmelt, the slopes transform into rich greenery, songs from feathered migrants echo throughout the valley and soon our favorite flitting insects begin to appear in bunches! For many of us, the increasing sight of butterflies marks the shift from spring to summer, another clock-work example of our planet’s network of natural cycles within various ecosystems.
It is these minute changes, such as the sudden appearance of butterflies, which contribute to the constant movement and regeneration of natural resources that continually sustain life on Earth.
Like other winged insects, butterflies are crucial pollinators, moving and shuffling the genetic material of different flowering plants known as angiosperms. The evolution of this essential symbiotic relationship between plant and animal began approximately 130 million years ago, during the speciation and rapid diversification of the first angiosperms. These plants suddenly had a reliable system for fertilization, allowing them greater genetic variation as mobile animals were able to carry their genetic material farther while these animals were provided with a reliable food source; an impeccable model of mutualistic cooperation soon established.
After millions of years of natural selection perfection, it is only in the past 100 years or so that these relationships have become severely threatened. Destructive human activities such as intensive farming, the introduction of invasive species and disease, habitat destruction and climate change are almost entirely to blame for the rapid disappearance of insect pollinators today.
Butterflies are without a doubt some of the most beloved of the insect pollinators, floating through the air, probing flowers gently with a curly proboscis, colorful and delicate. It is hard to imagine a world without these creatures; however many populations are on a steady decline.
In 1999, the Regal Fritillary butterfly was petitioned by the North American Butterfly Association to be put on the endangered species list, where it still remains today due to the destruction of 99% of its prairie habitat.
Maybe it is due to their small size that these animals are so easily overlooked, but the fact remains that their continued decline can lead to a slippery slope where rapid extinction of life-forms that rely on the these ancient, cooperative relationships could follow.
Butterfly Count Program
Luckily, every year the North American Butterfly Association gives us a wonderful opportunity to connect with nature while supporting their mission to conserve and protect butterfly species. Annually, volunteer butterfly counts allow the butterfly association to accumulate vital population data and research on butterfly species found throughout North America.
July 4 marks the official Butterfly Count Program in the United States and the North American Butterfly Association needs assistance documenting butterflies seen throughout the high Rockies and surrounding areas. Interested parties are encouraged to go to their website, www.naba.org, where you can pre-register your own butterfly count circle!
Register Your Count Circle
Once your party is registered, The North American Butterfly Association will assign you a count location and date and inform other potential participants. The information gained from this and other citizen science projects contributes to the vitality of the natural world, and gives everyone a chance to be part of the solution. The North American Butterfly Association butterfly count is an awesome opportunity for your senses and to foster stewardship because butterfly counts count!
Nicole Abrams is the Avon in-School and Girls in Science Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She loves her responsibility of fostering a sense of place in the natural world for all her students. Abrams also enjoys backpacking, tree-climbing and soaking up sunshine!