a delicate balance

UCM Biology Professor Takes Rare Butterflies Under His Wing

By Kathy Strickland

When Dan Marschalek was 6 years old, he embarked on the “treasure hunt” of collecting butterflies around his home in Madison, Wisconsin. He remembers visiting his grandparents’ farmland near St. Louis in the summers and being drawn more to the insects in the pastures than the cattle.

“I would often go on walks with my grandpa to look at the cows,” says Marschalek, who is now an assistant professor of biology at the University of Central Missouri. “He’s checking out the cows while I’m looking at more of the natural world.”

It didn’t take Marschalek long to realize that the butterflies in mideastern Missouri were different from the ones he’d collected in southern Wisconsin. That’s because many species have extremely restricted habitats. Some live in only one location on the entire planet.

Motivated to help protect endangered species, Marschalek decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He considered forestry as a double major, but when his introductory-level class started discussing the effects of insect “pests” on forests, he realized it was actually those “pests” he wanted to study. He switched to a double major in entomology and went on to earn his Ph.D. in the field.

Wolcott and Marschalek

UCM Biology Assistant Professors Dan Wolcott, left, and Dan Marschalek conduct research on regal fritillary butterflies in remnant tallgrass prairie near Sedalia, Missouri.

 

Endangered Species

People throughout North America are familiar with the plight of the monarch. This orange-and-blackwinged beauty really gets around, migrating 3,000 miles to Mexico each fall and back to Canada each spring. The species’ population has declined more than 90 percent in recent decades, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and there are now tri-national efforts to restore its native habitat. In cities across its vast migratory path, people are planting native flowers that provide nectar and cultivating the monarch caterpillar’s sole host plant: milkweed. Without milkweed, the monarch is unable to complete its life cycle, made even more daunting by the fact that the trek across the continent is a multigenerational endeavor.

But the monarch isn’t the only butterfly in danger, and Marschalek points out that it’s actually fortunate to have the ability to travel long distances and to have dozens of types of native milkweed across the continent that can serve as appropriate hosts. In California, a type of skipper, a group of butterflies named for their skipping flight patterns, is not so fortunate.

Laguna Mountains skipper caterpillars have a single food source, Cleveland’s horkelia, which is only found in meadows amid the coniferous highland forests of San Diego and Riverside counties. Having such a confined area in which to live and breed makes this tiny black-andwhite butterfly with a 1-inch wingspan naturally vulnerable. That, coupled with drought from global warming and destruction from grazing cattle, leaves little hope for the species that now exists in just one location on the planet: Palomar Mountain, best known as home of the Hale Telescope. The goal is to help the Laguna Mountains skipper become reestablished on its namesake mountain, where it was last seen in 1999. Because these butterflies are incapable of long flights, the San Diego Zoo is now helping to transport them there. Marschalek studied the Laguna Mountains skipper while doing his postdoctoral research at San Diego State University. He previously earned his master’s in biology at San Diego State studying three other threatened butterfly species in the area: the Hermes copper, Quino checkerspot and Harbison’s dun skipper.

Like the Laguna Mountains skipper, the tiny Harbison’s dun skipper has a limited distribution and a single host plant: the San Diego sedge. Wildfires and drought are two serious threats to this skipper. UCM graduate student Abby Lyons spent six weeks in California last summer surveying this species’ habitat in an effort to quantify their population size and learn more about their movement patterns. After graduating in May 2021 with a dual major of chemistry and biology from Concordia University near her hometown of Dwight, Nebraska, Lyons is pursuing her master’s in biology with a focus on ecology at UCM.

Her interest in ecology grew on a study trip to Costa Rica over spring break of 2020. She was able to observe insects in the rainforest, including a glass-winged butterfly, before the trip was cut short by the pandemic. She then discovered the opportunity to study the Harbison’s dun skipper through a research assistantship at UCM.

Like Marschalek, her mentor at UCM, Lyons grew up chasing butterflies. “When I was 5 my dream job was to be an entomologist,” she says. “Some of the best Christmas presents I ever got were insect identification books. … It’s really the perfect fit — a childhood dream come true.”

Abby Butterfly

UCM Biology graduate student Abby Lyons looks for Harbison's dun skippers in Southern California.

 

Home on the Prairie

Trading the mountains of California for the tall-grass prairies of Missouri, Marschalek is now working to protect species like the regal fritillary butterfly in cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation. This species used to be found from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast but has suffered massive declines in the past 50 or 60 years and is now rarely found west of the Mississippi River.

UCM undergraduate students had the opportunity to visit areas near Sedalia deemed remnant prairie, meaning the land has never been plowed. The virgin soil allows for a mix of native grasses and flowering plants to drop seeds and grow without having to compete with fescue. The bare ground is also important for organisms that maintain the health of the ecosystem.

It is in this remnant prairie that Marschalek and his students run through the tall grass with huge nets, chasing down the regal fritillary in order to mark their wings and track their populations. The butterfly resembles the monarch with orange and black markings on one side of its wings and has dark gray coloring with silvery white spots on the other. Lyons says it’s easier to catch than the Harbison’s dun skipper because it’s much larger and flies in a straighter line.

Understanding and appreciating the importance of native habitats for not only butterflies but many other species, Marschalek developed a new course at UCM called Restoration Ecology this spring. Students wrote a restoration plan for particular properties identified by the Missouri Department of Conservation and Knob Noster State Park. Marschalek says butterflies are being used around the world as indicators of climate change and the health of an ecosystem.

“They can be considered an indicator species, kind of like the canary in the coal mine,” he explains. “Each butterfly species only feeds on a couple of plant species, so based on the butterflies you have, you get an indication of the diversity and quality of the habitat.”

Butterfly Wing

Dan Marschalek marks the wing of a regal fritillary butterfly to track the population of this vulnerable species.

 

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