Nature Lab

By Dianne Van Dien | July 1, 2023
From Missouri Conservationist: July 2023

Species of Conservation Concern

Seeking Rare Butterflies

Twelve butterfly species are listed as species of conservation concern in Missouri, but MDC Natural History Biologist Steve Buback thinks that number would be higher if we knew more about more species.

“Very few people are studying these insects,” says Buback. “We’ve been pushing it for the last eight years, but our overall sense of most of these butterfly populations is still pretty poor, just because we have very limited eyes on the ground.”

Gaps in knowledge about insects are not uncommon. The sheer number of insects — about 25,000 species just in Missouri — means biologists must choose which ones to study. And when it comes to butterflies, Missouri has never had a professional lepidopterist (butterfly and moth specialist) to focus on that group. Most studies have been done by interested amateurs.

MDC currently tracks about 30 of Missouri’s 1,400-plus species of moths and butterflies. For species like the regal fritillary, where much is known about its life history and locations in the state, surveys are systematic and provide specific data.

But, Buback says, “Many butterfly species are so poorly known that most of our effort is spent just trying to find new populations. For example, the Ozark woodland swallowtail hasn’t been seen in Missouri since 2006. So, when we survey for that species, we’re just trying to find it.”

To find new populations, staff survey habitats that historically were known to support a species. But finding butterflies isn’t only the work of scientists.

“The study of insects in Missouri has always been driven by nonprofessionals,” says Buback. “Anyone can make valuable additions to science. With more people involved, we can really start to understand where these species are and how they are doing.”

Rare Butterfly Surveys

Routine surveys are carried out for rare butterflies with known population sites. For species where information is lacking, often the goal is simply to find locations that support them.

Linda’s roadside skipper has been found in a few locations in Missouri, but no more than one individual has ever been seen at each site.

Several populations of regal fritillaries are known in Missouri, allowing this species to be better studied than many of our other rare butterflies.

How to Get Involved

Attend butterfly events at MDC nature centers and Missouri State Parks.

Participate in surveys and learn about butterflies through these organizations:

  • Idalia Society (Kansas City area)
  • Missouri Butterfly Monitoring Network     
  • North American Butterfly Association (NABA)*         
  • Xerces Society   

*NABA counts are conducted annually in the Kansas City, St. Louis, and Kirksville areas.

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner