The small blue, pea-like flowers of the Wild Lupine may appear insignificant, but where this flower grows a certain blue butterfly flourishes. The Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is endangered in both Canada and the United States and is listed as extirpated by the Canadian federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). This means the species no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but can be found elsewhere. The wild lupine population has steadily declined, and because of their complex relationship, the butterfly is also vanishing into the blue. The lupines serve as a host plant for the butterflies’ eggs, and the resulting caterpillars feed exclusively on the lupine’s leaves. The adult Karner Blue, however, does not depend on the lupine in the same way, as it feeds on the nectar of other flowering plants.
This small butterfly, with a wingspan of only 18 to 28 mm,1 was traditionally found in New Hampshire, New York, southern Ontario, northern Indiana, Michigan, and southern Wisconsin. However it was most commonly found in southern Ontario, in areas such as Toronto, London and Sarnia.2 The species started to decline around the 1970’s with the dying off of Wild Lupines. As a result, the butterfly has not been reported since 1991. The disappearance has moved research and protection efforts into action, focusing primarily on the restoration of the Karner Blue habitat, which determines the growth and health of the Wild Lupines.
The habitat of the Karner Blue is basically restricted to where the Wild Lupine grows. The lupine tends to grow in sandy soils, sandy pine barrens, beach dunes, and oak savanna habitat. Ontario had two sites where the butterfly last thrived: Port Franks, which has sandy beach dunes, and St. William which has an oak savanna, with well spaced trees to provide a canopy over grasslands. This habitat has primarily been destroyed by controlled fires and the extensive planting of pine trees, which have taken over the lupines' natural habitat, as well as limited the variety of flowering plants. The Karner Blue produces two generations per year and is not migratory. This species remains in one place for its short life, usually living only five days in the wild. Wind and clouds do not hinder the butterflies, but they do not fare well in hot weather. Rain suspends their activity altogether.3
The Karner Blue is protected under SARA in Canada and recovery planning is in action, led by the National Recovery Strategy for the Karner Blue. The recovery goals and objectives are aimed at recreating suitable habitats for the butterfly in three areas of Ontario (Norfolk, Lambton and Northumberland Counties).4 After habitats have been restored, for example when the oak savanna, and the lupines have once again begun to thrive, the species can be reintroduced to Canadian land. In 2004, York University conducted a research study to measure the suitability of restored oak savanna in Ontario.
Recently in 2006, Pinery Provincial Park completed a study of the availability of nectar abundant plants, and the results are being used to educate on how to diversify flowering plants in Karner Blue habitats. Plans are also underway to encourage the growth of lupines and introduce the butterfly back into the Pinery’s ideal habitat.5 The Pinery protects almost 50% of the world’s remaining oak savanna, a rare habitat that has been decreasing globally.6
The Toronto Zoo has a captive breeding program for the butterfly, hoping to one day reintroduce the species. The zoo also places emphasis on the study and recovery of the sites in which the butterflies will be released. The thought process behind this effort is to reinstate the Wild Lupines, thus allowing the Karner Blue to thrive once again.
- “Melissa Blue.” Species Bank. Government of Canada. http://www.cbif.gc.ca/spp_pages/butterflies/species/MelissaBlue_e.php
- “Species Profile: Karner Blue” Species at Risk Public Registry. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/species/speciesDetails_e.cfm?sid=293
- “Oak Savanna - A Thumbnail Park History.” Pinery Provincial Park. http://www.pinerypark.on.ca/oak_savanna.html