Extinction Distinction

What does a shy Minnesotan have to do to get some attention around here?

MN Butterfly
Photo courtesy of Minnesota Zoo

How lonely does a shy Minnesotan have to become before it’s a cause for national alarm? Lonelier than a panda? Lonelier than a tiger? Catastrophically lonely.

Poweshiek skipperling butterflies once numbered in the millions, perhaps even the billions. Up through the Clinton administration, all you had to do if you wanted to see thousands of them was find some prairie flowers, some prairie dropseed, or some purple coneflowers. They covered the tall-grass prairie, turning the swath of it that stretched from Manitoba to central Iowa into a churning, flipping confetti. Then in the early 2000s, they suddenly began to vanish.

Now there are thought to be zero left in Minnesota. That’s zero, with a zero. Maybe 500 are left in all, living in pockets of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Manitoba. That’s a lonely butterfly. They’re a shoe-in for the next endangered species list. They’re extra endangered! For comparison, there are about 1,600 pandas and 3,200 tigers in the wild, and hundreds more in zoos. But every schoolchild knows about pandas and tigers, and keeps them in front of us with T-shirts, book reports, and plushies. Schoolchildren don’t know about Poweshiek skipperlings.

On their own, the Poweshiek are not easy to see, being shy, brown, and as small as a thumbnail. But up close, they are improbably adorable: fuzzy and fluffy with big black doll’s eyes, like a teddy bear given butterfly wings. “We’d love it if someone could make a stuffed animal of the Poweshiek skipperling,” says Tara Harris, director of conservation for the Minnesota Zoo. “Do you know anybody who could make a stuffed animal?”

Harris works with Erik Runquist, a butterfly conservation biologist, and Cale Nordmeyer, a butterfly conservation specialist, in a small office near an out-of-the-way zoo entrance. They’re trying to save Poweshieks from oblivion. Harris is better known for her work with a less shy creature—she’s the person in charge of tiger mating for all of North America. She keeps the studbook; she oversees all tiger nookie. “But tiger breeding is easy compared to Poweshiek breeding,” she says. “We know how to breed tigers.” And feed them. We know hardly anything about the Poweshiek.

That’s why Runquist is trying to quickly figure out everything he can about them. What we do know: “They were our most Minnesotan butterfly,” he says. The largest part of their historic range was in Minnesota. And Poweshieks are above all homebodies; they don’t like to travel farther than a football field in their lifetime.

The Poweshiek starts as an egg laid on a tuft of grass in spring. After it’s born, it stays put, eating the grass it was born on. It continues eating the grass it was born on, lo, all the long prairie summer and as the leaves turn colors right up until the children put on their Halloween costumes. Then it is ready for winter, and the Poweshiek is tougher, better, more stoic at handling winter than any pond-hockey player you might care to name.

When the snows and the bitter cold come, a natural antifreeze in its body prevents its cell walls from rupturing as it just lies there—through Christmas, through the major mattress-purchasing holidays, through tax season. When spring comes, it goes back to eating the grass it was born on. In early summer, things pick up. The Poweshiek retreats into a tiny chrysalis fused to a blade of grass. Then it comes out ready to party. All it wants is to flit to a bright black-eyed Susan and find a willing mate.

When two butterflies fall in love (and who’s to say they don’t?), they mate for an hour. Then presumably—their 10,000 eye receptors suddenly hooded with disinterest—the butterflies separate. The boy goes on to look for another girl; the girl goes on to look for a tuft of grass where she can lay her eggs. That worked for hundreds of thousands of years, until sometime after Friends got canceled.

But Runquist and Nordmeyer are holding on to the teeniest, tiniest glimmer of green-grass hope. This summer, they will put on strong sunblock and join other Minnesotans in a statewide treasure hunt for surviving Poweshiek. If they’re out there, a few will be brought to zoos, like pandas and tigers, in hopes of breeding them. If we figure out how to breed them, then the shyest Minnesotan, our fuzzy little teddy-bear butterfly neighbor, might just survive our hectic modern world.

Those are a lot of ifs. And if all the ifs don’t come together, maybe one day Chinese and Indian schoolchildren will write reports on the Poweshiek, just like our schoolchildren write reports on pandas and tigers, and they’ll tut-tut at us from afar, shaking their heads at the thoughtless foreigners who were so careless with the wild and unique miracles we were heir to.