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Resurrecting the World’s Rarest Butterfly

Marcos Trinidad 0:00

[theme music] Hey, what's up? I'm Marcos Trinidad and this is Human/Nature. Every week we'll get out into the nature of your neighborhood with the help of people who see the world a little differently. Today, a story about rediscovery. [ambient nature sounds] So we're right on a cliff, with beautiful vegetation. You can see the ocean. There are ships. We have uh, Dr. Jana Johnson, who is driving behind us with a trunk full of butterflies. Featuring a butterfly, the Palos Verdes blue, a species considered one of the rarest in the world. And how it came back from the brink of extinction.

Dr. Jana Johnson 0:46

So enjoy the day, enjoy the view, and enjoy the fact that you are releasing something that was extinct for 11 years. [sounds of birds chirping]

Marcos Trinidad 0:55

This story begins with a conservationist named Rick Rogers.

Rick Rogers 0:59

I am a professional entomologist, and I do preservation of endangered species.

Marcos Trinidad 1:07

On the morning of March 10, 1994, Rick got a call from a butterfly expert named Rudi Mattoni, inviting them to go out on a little field trip.

Rick Rogers 1:15

He called me and said, Would you like to join me in San Pedro, at this uh naval fuel depot? He said just bring your net and let's look for whatever's there.

Marcos Trinidad 1:26

Now, let me stop here to say you're gonna hear a lot about Rudi Mattoni in this episode. Sadly, Rudi died earlier this year. But according to Rick, and the whole conservationist community, he was a world class entomologist and plays a starring role in this story. Rick and Rudi got their insect nets, and they drove together out to San Pedro.

Rick Rogers 1:49

The habitat is sort of sloping low hills, with roads connecting the areas to coastal sage scrub, which means there's a lot of prickly pear cactus.

Marcos Trinidad 2:01

And right away-

Rick Rogers 2:03

We stopped the car, got out, and we all had butterfly nets.

Marcos Trinidad 2:07

They saw something. [original music]

Rick Rogers 2:09

And I saw a blue butterfly, almost immediately.

Marcos Trinidad 2:12

A little blue butterfly fluttering around.

Rick Rogers 2:14

And I didn't see which one it was because it looked like a blue flash, flying real fast. But I said, Oh, look, Rudi! There's a blue butterfly! In a few seconds after netting the butterfly he said, Do you know what this is? And he started yelling, This is the Palos Verdes blue you found! And uh, and I knew instantly by his uh, the sound of his voice that it was a major, major, major thing.

Marcos Trinidad 2:44

The reason catching this particular butterfly was so major is because for years and years, over a decade, the Palos Verdes blue butterfly was believed to be extinct. After the break, how the butterfly disappeared, and how it came back from the brink. [music out] [break]

To someone who is not an entomologist, a Palos Verdes blue butterfly, also known as the PV blue, looks like any other blue butterfly. It's iridescent blue, sort of like a Morpho, but much much smaller, about the size of a postage stamp. The thing is, the only place on Earth you can find this one butterfly is around the Palos Verdes Peninsula. And until that fateful day in 1994, the last person to actually record seeing the PV blue in the wild-

Jess Morton 3:45

I'm Jess Morton. I'm with the Palos Verdes, South Bay Audubon Society.

Marcos Trinidad 3:50

Was a man named Jess Morton. My producer Caroline Champlin spoke with Jess about the final days of the PV blue.

Caroline Champlin 3:59

Do you remember the first time that you ever saw a Palos Verdes blue butterfly?

Jess Morton 4:04

Yes, I can. And that would have been 1982. That was a, a trip on to the Palos Verdes Peninsula. I went out with Rudi Mattoni. Uh, I wanted to see the Palos Verdes blue butterfly because that was an endangered species. And we explored one of the two historic sites that were remaining and found butterflies there, and those were certainly the first ones I saw. And then disaster happened [original music] as disasters do to very limited populations of creatures of any sort. When you have a species that is, has a very limited range and a very small number of individuals in it, it is highly vulnerable. And in this case, it was a combination of terrible weather, it was fire clearance, it was the conversion of the main habitat to a baseball diamond that uh, did them in. And when we ran our count in 1983, we found none. [music out] And I was, I got out on the hillsides a couple of weeks later, and came across a new location that had butterflies. But I saw three one weekend and three the next, and I did get some photographs that, of that last group. But those were the last ones.

Marcos Trinidad 5:37

By 1985, the Palos Verdes blue butterfly was considered totally extinct. Until -

Jess Morton 5:45

[upbeat music] I got this call one evening, from this deep gravelly voice that Rudi had, he just said, Guess what I saw today? [laughing] And I knew he'd been looking at this location and I said, You didn't? And he said, Oh, yes, I did. [laughs] You want to come take a look? So the next day I got out and took my camera along and got a photograph of the, rediscovered the Palos Verdes blue butterfly. It was a delight.

Marcos Trinidad 6:23

As soon as Jess got that call that the butterfly still existed, he sprang into action.

Jess Morton 6:29

As it happened, I was also the editor of our newsletter for the Audubon Society, and had an issue going to press that day. So I rushed to get a print of the, of the butterfly photograph, and we managed to get that through the presses the next day and out in the mail, [laughing] to our membership so, we had first publicity on the butterfly. But it was useful to do that too, because it makes people aware that a place like Los Angeles, which is this enormous urban sprawl, has extremely rare animals within its city limits. Um, and that's, it's an eye opener for people, particularly young people who are quite concerned about the environment, and are interested in doing something about it that could make a difference.

Marcos Trinidad 7:36

Jess says the unique thing about this species, and the secret to protecting it, lies in the way that the butterfly becomes a butterfly.

Jess Morton 7:46

I presume you have an idea of the lifecycle. We mostly think of a butterfly as something with wings, but the animal is one that lives for a year. And the winged phase of that adult is about five or six days, if they're lucky. [laughs] Most of the time, they're either as an egg, or they're on a larva feeding on a plant, or they're- spend something like eight months in the ground as a pupa at the base of the plant.

Marcos Trinidad 8:19

The preferred food source for the Palos Verdes blue is deerweed. It's a small scraggly bush with yellow flowers. Adult PV blues lay their eggs on the unopened deerweed flowers. The eggs turn into hungry little larva, which then turn into pupas. The pupas then drop into the mulch at the base of the plant. And here's the crazy thing. They can stay like that for years. They stay in pupa form until the conditions are just right. When that happens, they hatch, they fly off to mate, and lay more eggs. So, those changes happening on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the early 80s

Jess Morton 9:00

Terrible weather, it was fire clearance, it was the conversion of the main habitat to a baseball diamond...

Marcos Trinidad 9:08

The drought and destruction of their favorite food, the deerweed, made it really hard for the PV blue to survive. Luckily, after Jess published the Audubon newsletter about the extinct butterfly rising from the dead, he and Rudi had help.

Jess Morton 9:23

We had a very strong volunteer effort to do some habitat improvement at the differential supply point in removing a lot of ice plant that was on the property overrunning a lot of the food plant for the butterflies. One day, early in the, it was probably in '95, we were up there looking down on the sea of people, [laughing] we had 250 volunteers that showed up. That was quite a sight.

Marcos Trinidad 9:58

Obviously, restoring native habitat is important. But Jess says, the key to protecting the PV blue and other endangered species might be in changing our mindset.

Jess Morton 10:10

I think people have to understand much more about how nature works, and how human societies interact with that. One thing would be to go and sit on a hillside for a while, turn the radio off, shut off the cell phone and look at the sea or look at the ground, look at a tree and watch it and see that almost nothing will seem to happen. [original music] But if you think about what was this ground I was sitting on 100 years ago? What will it look like 100 years from now? Try to use your imagination. There were breezes and there were grasses. The Fox ran over it. Perhaps a hawk flew overhead. And there were people that were living in the area, and somebody came down and sat down close to there and looked to the sea. The disappearance of that butterfly in many ways doesn't change anything. It's such a small creature. And yet, it is indicative of perhaps what this planet is as a whole. When you think of the universe, I'm not sure this little planet that we're on is a whole lot more meaningful than that butterfly. Hard to say.

Marcos Trinidad 12:04

After the break, we'll head out into the field to release some of the rarest butterflies on Earth. [music out] [break]

It's been almost 30 years since the Palos Verdes blue butterfly was rediscovered, hanging on from the brink of extinction. And when biologists realized that they had a second shot at keeping it alive, they got to work. [audio: ambient outdoor sounds and a woman's voice] Dr. Jana Johnson, or Dr. J, is a professor at Moorpark College, who set up the program to raise them in captivity. Those butterflies are descended from the ones discovered by Rick and Rudi all those years ago, and a couple of times a year in the spring, they get released back into the wild. [nature sounds] My producer Caroline and I got to tag along with Dr. J on one of those releases. We met up at a secret location in Rancho Palos Verdes. [birds chirping] It's a hillside reserve protected and restored by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy, a partner on the recovery program. The place is filled with wildflowers on a busy street between restaurants and homes. Dr. J pulled up to the site and open up the trunk of her white SUV. Inside there was a box and a cooler filled with dozens and dozens of butterflies.

Dr. Jana Johnson 13:38

We have a potted plant that's inside. If you look from this side, you can kind of see it. You'll see it better when we take it out. Um, but look at all those. Do you see all those buterflies?

Marcos Trinidad 13:47

Oh they are so cool! Yeah, is it a mix of male and female?

Dr. Jana Johnson 13:51

It is a mix of males and females.

Marcos Trinidad 13:54

Dr. J and her team raise about two or 3000 butterflies every year.

Dr. Jana Johnson 13:59

Which gives us enough that we can release all life stages and let nature figure out who's gonna stay.

Marcos Trinidad 14:06

She's driving down the trail with her AC blasting. Keeping these butterflies cool until it's time for their release. She has her eyes peeled for the perfect location to set these babies free. [car door slamming]

Dr. Jana Johnson 14:19

We have enough processing cups but if everybody wants to release a butterfly, they can. [someone says, "Wow!" in background] So this is usually like the highlight. Um, I like these plants that got a lot of flowers on them. This is perfect. They should mate, they should be happy. I'm going to demonstrate how to do it because I just need you to do it in that manner. Does that makes sense?

Marcos Trinidad 14:44

Dr. J picks up one of the tiny cups from the cooler. It kind of resembles a hospital dessert cup, but inside is a single fluttering butterfly.

Dr. Jana Johnson 14:54

So this is a processing container and you can see the iridescent blue because that's prismatic color from the scales on his wings, kind of like the blue of a hummingbird. Oh, he's gettin' active. So what we're gonna do, we don't want to leave him in the sun too long, you can use your body to shade him. So I'm holding him by the side and then I'm going to use my thumbs to crack the top open. And then once I open it, he's just gonna leave. You can see the color of his wings, which is this beautiful glorious blue all the way to the edge that says male. Behaviorally, they're different as well. So the boys are going to patrol for females. So their way to maximize their biological fitness which is their genes in the next generation, is to mate with as many females as they can convince to mate with them.

Marcos Trinidad 15:44

Well, he found a nice shady spot and he, I think he's waiting for the females.

Dr. Jana Johnson 15:49

Well, let's get some females out to him then.

Marcos Trinidad 15:51

The reason the sex of the butterfly is so important is because in order to make a difference for the species, they actually need a mate out here. Okay, so now I have a processing container with a female in it and I'm about to release on this deerweed so I'm gonna crouch down a little bit.

There she goes! Opposite direction of the male. You know some love is just not meant to happen. After spending about 10 minutes releasing butterflies at this location, we head off to the second site.

Dr. Jana Johnson 16:37

What we don't want to do is over concentrate any one point because the predators are smart.

Marcos Trinidad 16:42

They'll see a buffet.

Dr. Jana Johnson 16:43

They are gonna see that buffet. [laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 16:45

So we're gonna make 'em work for it.

Dr. Jana Johnson 16:47

We are.

Marcos Trinidad 16:48

According to Dr. J blue butterfly predators are basically everything. Birds eat them, so do mammals and reptiles. Even a strong breeze will do 'em in. In order to give the young butterflies a fighting chance at love, Dr. J's team will spread them across the landscape.

Dr. Jana Johnson 17:08

Okay, you guys ready? Okay, come grab a cup.

Marcos Trinidad 17:14

Oh, oh, check 'em out! I think they found love.

Dr. Jana Johnson 17:21

[original music] They are. That's them mating right there. So that's what you just watched. When you watch them do the courtship? They're mating right there. Mate in pairs. He will also reach back with his um hind most pair of legs and stroke her, which I just think is sweet. He's just like, Okay, sweetie. [laughing] So that's our first free mating this season. [Marcos and others clapping, cheering, laughing] That's awesome.

Marcos Trinidad 17:52

So it works!

Dr. Jana Johnson 17:53

Perfect. It works! Woo!

Marcos Trinidad 17:57

So yeah, within like a 25 foot radius, we have four mating pairs

Dr. Jana Johnson 18:04

Of endangered butterflies

Marcos Trinidad 18:05

Of endangered butterflies. It is believed that there are only about 100 of the species left in the wild. If you live in the South Bay, and you want to help keep the populations thriving plant deerweed, plant rattlepod. These are the host plants that will attract them. More information about that and habitat restoration volunteer opportunities can be found on the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy website, pvplc.org. And if you live elsewhere, you can benefit butterflies. Just plant natives wherever you can, and research the ones that attract butterflies in your area. [music out] And now, without further ado, an original song by Rick Rogers, one of the two to rediscover the elusive Palos Verdes blue butterfly.

Rick Rogers 19:02

Okay! Um, I think I have to have my wife help me with this. Sharon? Maybe you have to hold this over like so because okay, all righty. So this is called "Buzzing Along With the Bees" and uh, it goes like this. [Rick singing with acoustic guitar] You see the dancing flies in the skies, butterflies flutter by, looking up at the trees, buzzing along with a bees. A click beetle click does the trick, soda the shape of a walking stick, looking up at the trees... [duck under]

Caroline Champlin 19:35

Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Production by Carla Javier and me, Caroline Champlin. Story editing was done by Kelly Prime, mixing and engineering by Parker McDaniels. The music is composed by Ex Manana, and Doris Anahi Munoz is the music supervisor. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Thank you to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristin Muller, Andy Oroszo, Michael Cosentino, Neha Shaida and Fiona Ng. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. We'll see you next week.

Rick Rogers 20:35

[singing] ...buzzing along with a, buzzing along with a, buzzing along with a bee.