A team of researchers funded by the Department of Defense, or DOD, Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program, or SERDP, braved sweltering heat and mosquito-laden conditions as they trudged through APG wetlands to locate Maryland’s state insect, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.
Along with two other butterfly species – the Puget blue and the monarch – the Baltimore checkerspot is being studied to examine the effects climate change is having on the butterfly populations on DOD lands.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, any change in the climate of an area can have a great effect on the plants and animals living there.
Head researcher and Tufts University professor Elizabeth Crone, said the study is primarily interested in how the species interactions are changing in changing environments.
For example, the warmer and shorter winters are causing the nectar plants of the Baltimore checkerspot to bloom earlier. This effect may cause the caterpillar eggs to hatch earlier, or force the species to find other nectar plants.
“As the environment changes, are the interactions of these butterflies with their host plants and their nectar plants… likely to change?” Crone asked, “and if they do, will that make things better or worse? We know that a lot of species are shifting their timing and changing [the species] they’re interacting with. But almost no one in science has asked if that’s good.”
She said that after determining if the butterflies are indeed adjusting, the next step in the study is to figure out if they are still dependent on their known host and nectar plants, and if not, what resources do they need.
While flowerbeds might seem to be the best place to locate butterflies, Crone along with research assistant David Stein, instead, made their way through installation ranges in search of the checkerspot.
“It turns out that military training activities are really good for butterfly habitat,” Crone said. “A lot of butterfly species need disturbed areas- with fires that aren’t controlled running through them periodically or trampling which would have previously been done by large herds of deer or bison. And now, who has large tracts of land that they allow trampling and fires to go through? The military,” she said.
“ In general people don’t want things like fires or trampling of large herds of animals,” she added. “The military are the only people that allow this disturbance except for carefully managed conservation lands.”
According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Baltimore checkerspot was once a common insect with colonies in all 15 counties. Today, however, wild colonies are only known to be at 11 sites in seven counties, mostly located in Western Maryland.
While there are many populations in Harford County, the team was not able to locate the species on the installation this summer, but funding will continue the study through 2020.
Stein will be back in August to continue his search for the checkerspot’s host and nectar plants and the team is working on a strategy for next summer.
Crone said it is important to conduct the research now to possibly prevent the checkerspot and the two other butterfly species in the study from being listed as a threatened or endangered species.
“If you know [climate change] is coming… and you can input some conservation measures ahead of time, it may be enough to prevent the species from being listed,” she said.