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Karner Blue Butterfly

Hollingsworth, J & K

Karner Blue Butterfly

In 1983, there were about 3,700 Karner blue butterflies in New Hampshire. By 2000 they had completely disappeared from the Granite State landscape. Thanks to an intense reintroduction program, these delicate creatures are once again mating and reproducing in the New Hampshire wild, but they remain endangered. We need to protect the future of the Karner blue in New Hampshire, one of the few remaining states where it survives.

Zoo New England staff has made several trips to Concord, N.H., to participate in the Karner Blue Butterfly Habitat Restoration Project, which aims to expand the Karner blue butterfly population by restoring the very particular habitat it needs to survive.

Lost Lupine

With a wingspan of about 1 inch, the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is small in size, but it’s impossible to miss the fluttering of a male Karner’s eye-catching iridescent blue wings in the wild.

The Karner blue butterfly has very particular habitat requirements. Wild lupine, a small flowering plant, is the immature Karner’s sole food source, and it is only found in pine barrens. The problem in New Hampshire is that 90 percent of the state’s pine barrens—plant communities dominated by grasses, forbs, shrubs, and small to medium pines that grow on dry, infertile soils—have been lost because of human activity such as community development, wildfire suppression and forest cultivation. In 2000, Karner blues had completely disappeared from New Hampshire, as they previously had from Maine and Massachusetts.

Bringing Back the Karner Blue

In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and New Hampshire Fish and Game began the Karner Blue Butterfly Habitat Restoration Project at the Concord Pine Barrens in Concord, N.H., with the goal of restoring and maintaining the Pine Barrens and reintroducing the Karner blue to New Hampshire by releasing captive-reared butterflies into the area.

Zoo New England staff has made several trips to Concord to participate in the New England Zoo & Aquarium Conservation Collaborative, a group of accredited zoos in the Northeast working on Karner blue conservation. We have assisted with growing and planting wild lupine in the Pine Barrens in the hope of increasing the Karners blue’s habitat and bolstering their numbers.

"It’s a great opportunity for us to do conservation work in the field and close to home. Staff goes up and plants lupines and preps the area for the planting. We've also collected leaves that have eggs on them and have taken them to the lab where they raise caterpillars in captivity and then release the adults,” says assistant curator Pete Costello. Many other individuals and institutions, including local school children, have also pitched in on the habitat restoration.

The efforts appear to be paying off. The state’s Fish and Game Department has estimated that more than 2,600 Karner blues now exist in the wild. The agency has also for a number of years observed signs that the butterflies are reproducing in the wild, such as the presence of Karner blue butterfly eggs and caterpillars in the Pine Barrens.

Identifying a Karner Blue Butterfly

karnerbluebutterflyMale Karner blues are distinguishable by their deep blue wings edged by a thin black border with a white outer edge. The female is grayish brown—especially toward the outer portions of the wings—or bluish, with irregular bands of orange crescents inside the narrow black border, also with a white outer edge. The underside of both male and female is gray with a continuous band of orange crescents along the edges of both wings and scattered black spots.