Small but Mighty

My internship at the Wilds began at the start of June and every week I surveyed butterflies and flowering plants in various restored prairies. The first few weeks were a very steep learning curve where all I could think about was trying to figure out what species each butterfly was before it flitted out of sight. It was stressful and the surveys took a lot of concentration.

As the summer continued, I became familiar with the common species, my surveys became much more enjoyable, and I began to look forward to seeing my favorite species. I loved seeing the tiny eastern tailed blue butterflies that would flutter around my feet and the silver spotted skippers that would cluster on purple bergamot flowers. The butterfly I wanted to see the most though, was a Monarch. Monarchs are the one species that everyone (including myself) is familiar with. I knew they were an iconic species and all I wanted was to see just a single one fly past.

Therefore, I will never forget the day I saw my first Monarch butterfly. I was trekking through the prairies as usual when I saw a beautiful and magnificent monarch glide over my head. It was absolutely beautiful and I remember whipping out my camera when I saw it land on a milkweed. It was amazing. Not only did I finally see a Monarch but I saw it land on a milkweed—the infamous plant essential for their survival.

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When I got back to the office, I told all my fellow interns about the Monarch and I showed them the video I took of it feeding. However, when my director heard that today—in the middle of July—was the first day I saw a Monarch, she was sad rather than happy.

The summer I was at the Wilds had the lowest number of Monarch butterflies recorded for a summer so far. Over the previous five years, the number of Monarchs recorded had been steadily declining. My happiest moment had become one of the most heart-wrenching.

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Butterflies are so small that they are often overlooked. They are creatures that we all recognize yet care very little about. Many people see them flutter through their yard or through fields and although they see them as beautiful, they do not see them as essential.

Butterflies are essential keystone species. They are key pollinators in many habitats such as prairies, savannas, wetlands, and even forests. Butterflies are also indicators of the health of an ecosystem because they are very sensitive to pollutants and toxins. Also, butterflies are very good indicators of the floral diversity in an ecosystem. The results of my study clearly showed that areas with a larger number of flowering plants will have more butterflies. It’s as simple as that.

I began my internship at the Wilds completely ignorant of how important and amazing butterflies truly are. Like many people, I hardly even acknowledged butterflies. I thought they were pretty but I never thought any deeper than that. Over the summer, I gained a deep appreciation for these tiny critters and I realized that I had so much left to learn. However, I am proud to say that now when I see a butterfly flit past while I am out in the field I don’t just see a pretty insect–I see a creature that is essential. I see a creature that is small but mighty.

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Hunting Butterflies

If you are a biologist and you visit Yellowstone National Park, you often wake up before even the smallest sliver of light has broken across the horizon. You head out and get into position just as a golden edge of light begins to creep into the sky, and you wait. If you are lucky and patient you will notice a faint puff of silver fog on the edge of a tree line. Then a sleek grey muzzle will emerge followed by the slender graceful body of a wolf.

During the summer, most animals will be active at dusk and dawn. These are the coolest hours of the day and when it will cost the least amount of energy for them to forage or hunt. At the peak of the day, sensible creatures will lie down and wait out the heat. Butterflies are one of the exceptions.

Butterflies love the heat. They sit in the sun and slowly open and close their wings as they soak up the warmth. The longer they sit in the light, the more energy their muscles have and the more they can fly. Butterflies also love still windless days. They are small, fragile creatures and they have a very hard time battling any wind without being blown off course. So, I spent my summer trekking through prairies on the hottest, driest, sunniest, windless days in the baking sun in search of butterflies. Despite that, I have rarely seen so many beautiful sights or had so much fun in my life.

The Wilds is located on lands that were once heavily strip-mined. This is a mining practice where huge roving factories dig up the top few feet of the earth over vast landscapes in search of minerals. Then they throw down the seeds for whatever plant will grow the fastest and they leave. Over the years since the Wilds was established, it has worked to remove the resilient invasive plants and restore the native prairies.

The oldest restored prairies on the property are now over fifteen years old and they are absolutely beautiful. Imagine a sea of green interspersed with flowers of all colors: red, yellow, blue, purple, orange, and pink. Then imagine lush green bunches of grass that stretch above your head. Finally, imagine lovely, iridescent, fluttering, creatures that swim through the air dancing from one flower to the next. This was my summer. Of course it was hot and I was very familiar with ticks, but these are very small trade-offs for such an amazing experience.

“I’m going to be studying…”

For as long as I can remember I have loved animals. There are so many beautiful creatures on this earth and even from a young age I knew I wanted to work with them when I grew up. So, when I got to college I started studying some amazing creatures. I learned so much about grizzlies, wolves, elk, and pronghorn and all the challenges they faced. I learned just how much of a negative impact humans are having on these wonderful creatures and my resolve to help them strengthened.

After, a full year of college I thought I had a solid grasp on the key species in most ecosystems and I was ready to get out in the field and put some of my new-found knowledge to the test. So, I began an internship at the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio. I remember hoping I would get to work on the research project focused on bison. I imagined myself in the middle of rolling green prairies observing bison and recording their every movement.

On the first day of the internship, I sat chatting shyly with my fellow interns. There was a hushed anticipation that seemed to hover in the room as we waited for the clock to hit 8:00 am. At the time I was so confident that I would get to work on the bison project but looking back now I know that my hopes were much higher than my actual experience level. I was as green as a tulip stem back then and I had no true idea what a field project would be like. Anyway, the directors for the internship finally arrived and they began announcing the projects to which we would be assigned for the summer. When they announced my project, all I remember thinking was, “I’m going to be studying . . . butterflies?”