Caterpillar Carpooling: Reintroducing the frosted elfin butterfly to Georgia

Aug 23, 2022

On a brisk April morning, biologists from four separate agencies gathered south of Tallahassee to initiate the first attempt to restore the frosted elfin butterfly to a place where it had disappeared many years earlier.

The frosted elfin is a small, cryptic animal that emerges once each year to fly, mate, and lay eggs in early spring.

Figure 1. A frosted elfin butterfly. Photo credit: Dave McElveen

The range extends from Canada to Florida to Texas, but range-wide declines imperil nearly every population, and populations in Georgia disappeared over a decade ago. Hardwood encroachment and lack of fire pose two of the primary threats — hardwood shrubs grow tall in the absence of fire and shade out the elfin and its only host plant in our region, the sundial lupine.

The Munson Hills area of the Apalachicola National Forest has the best-studied population of frosted elfin anywhere on Earth. Since 2010, efforts to monitor and study the population have been conducted by volunteers and researchers to obtain critical fire management information. This information then goes to the Forest Service staff that work hard to sustain this rare butterfly, and other fire-dependent species like bobwhite quail and red-cockaded woodpeckers. But increasing wildfire risk associated with extreme weather events makes it imperative to expand the range of elfin to avoid having all our eggs sitting in one burned up basket. Afterall, the Munson Hills area is the location of only one of two populations of frosted elfins left in Florida.

Prospects for a return to Georgia took a turn for the better recently thanks to on-going research conducted by Tall Timbers and the fine management practiced by our colleagues at the Jones Center at Ichauway. Located in Newton, Georgia, Ichauway has thousands of acres of fire-maintained habitat and a population of lupine the elfins need. With years of hard work, we can finally put our knowledge into practice and return the species to Georgia.

The elfin has a 1-inch wingspan and typically flies for a couple weeks before laying eggs and dying. Chances of a return to Ichauway seem pretty bleak if left up to Mother Nature, but perhaps some help could tilt the balance. The Munson Hills location is the closest known population, but it is still over 60 miles away. To put that in perspective, that would be like you traveling over 4,000 miles in less than 2 weeks (you would need to average 11 mph to make it in time). It is clear they will need some assistance. Unfortunately, this isolation is not uncommon, and is why translocation of animals has become such a familiar tool for biologists today.

Luckily, Tall Timbers has a history of successful translocations, including red-cockaded woodpeckers, bobwhite quail, brown-headed nuthatches, and grasshopper sparrows, to name a few. But unlike these animals, butterflies have several different life stages that could be moved: eggs, caterpillars, pupae, or adults. Those that have wielded a bug net know that butterflies can be hard to catch, but caterpillars on the other hand rarely put up such a fight, and make good translocation candidates.

Figure 2. David Cook (FWC) finds a frosted elfin caterpillar for translocation. Photo credit: Tim Donovan FWC

The plan was simple: collect caterpillars from the Munson Hills in the Apalachicola National Forest and move them to Ichauway. Biologists and researchers from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, U.S. Forest Service, the Jones Center, and Tall Timbers met at the Munson Hills to do just that.  In just a few hours we collected 60 frosted elfin caterpillars. Half of these caterpillars were to be immediately moved to Ichauway for release onto host plants, while the other half were kept to be released as adults next spring. This allows us to test which life stage of the butterfly is best for future translocations of the species elsewhere. When a caterpillar was found, we placed it in a Petri dish and placed it inside a Styrofoam box to regulate its body temperature.

Once we gathered the caterpillars, a convoy of vehicles left the forest to usher the species across the Florida-Georgia border. With state and federal entities in tow, and permission slips in hand from multiple state and federal agencies, you would have thought we were transporting the President. Politicians aside, once we crossed the state line we would be in the possession of the rarest native animal in the entire state. The whole population of frosted elfins in Georgia, contained in a single Styrofoam box.

Once at Ichauway, we moved into the forest to deliver the caterpillars to individual lupine plants. The caterpillars would forage for another week before pupating at or below the soil surface. After that, they would remain as a chrysalis for nine months, waiting out the hot temperatures of the summer and the cold of the winter to emerge next spring. Because of this long dormancy, we put protective cages over the plants where we placed caterpillars to ensure no hungry spiders or wasps take our new Georgia residents. The other 30 caterpillars that were not placed in the forest were kept in the Petri dishes and fed lupine leaves until they too pupated. They will wait in a climate-controlled incubator until next spring when we will reunite them with their cohort at the lupine patch.

Come February 2023, frosted elfins will once again fly over Georgia soil performing their spiraling courtship displays and laying their eggs among the lupine flowers. While the premise of the reintroduction was simple (caterpillar carpooling), there were years of work devoted to learning more about these butterflies—from their biology, to their interactions with fire, and from many people and entities devoted to saving a small endemic species. As conservationists, it is a cathartic moment to have made progress in an age of mass extinction.

Figure 4. The caterpillar caravan entering the Jones Center with caterpillars carpooling in the rightmost vehicle. The delivery sign shows us the way. Photo credit: Tim Donovan

The number of great photos taken during the event was simply too much to put in one article, so our photographer for the event, Tim Donovan, has made it available here instead. Feel free to check out all the moments of this first ever translocation and reintroduction of the frosted elfin.

Thank you to all who helped in this effort, including Jessica Valdez and Matt Trager with the U. S. Forest Service, David Cook with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Anna Yellin with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. I would also like to recognize an almost decade’s long effort from volunteers Dean and Sally Jue, Virginia Craig, Dave and Jean McElveen, and David Harder for providing vital information on the Munson Hills population. Thank you to Kier Klepzig, Lisa Giencke, and Tom Sheehan at the Jones Center for assisting with the project and committing to frosted elfin conservation in Georgia. Funding for this project was made in part by Gulf Power Company, Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida’s Conserve Wildlife License Plate grant, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the At-risk Species Program.

Figure 3. Frosted Elfin caterpillar hunters. From left to right, back row: Lisa Giencke (JC), Crystal Bishop (JC), Tom Sheehan (JC), Victoria Cassidy (JC), Allie Snyder (JC), Gabe Tigreros (JC), Mady Dunlap (JC), David Cook (FWC), Jessica Valdez (USFS), and Rox Oxford (USFS). front row: Nelson Ball (TTRS), Emma Jonas (TTRS), Rob Meyer (TTRS), and Dave McElveen (TTRS). Photo credit: Tim Donovan

About the Author
Robert Meyer
Bio: Rob Meyer is a wildlife ecologist who graduated with a Masters degree from Mississippi State University in 2018. Since then, he has worked at the Stoddard Bird Lab at Tall Timbers conducting research and managing the Red Hills Red-cockaded Woodpecker population. His studies have included many volant critters such as flying squirrels, birds, and butterflies.
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