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Big friend to a delicate insect

Published: February 6th, 2009

Category: Spotlights

Jaret Daniels

Jaret Daniels

Assistant Director for Research, McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity
Department of Entomology and Nematology

Since 2002, a tiny butterfly with a catchy name has kept Jaret Daniels very busy.

The Miami Blue, a once-thriving species that lived as far north as Cape Canaveral, has dwindled to a population of less than 250 on just two islands in the Florida Keys.

“Because it was a locally common and actually kind of a ‘weedy’ butterfly, it wasn’t very well-studied,” said Daniels, a conservation biologist in the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the Florida Museum of Natural History.

A petition from butterfly enthusiasts saved the pretty insect from the brink of extinction. Florida recognized the Miami Blue as an endangered species, leading Daniels on a far-reaching study of the ecology, conservation and politics of the dwindling species. Several graduate students work with him, researching everything from the butterflies’ genetics to their interactions with another little insect: the ant.

“What started out as a straightforward project has turned into a complex issue,” Daniels said.

Because of the delicate nature and low numbers of an imperiled species such as the Miami Blue, Daniels needs government approval before he can release captive-bred butterflies into the wild.

As often as a few times a month, Daniels heads to the Keys to release or monitor his brood. The wings of the females are bright blue with dots of orange—”Gator colors,” Daniels said. The males are solid blue.

In 2005, Daniels watched three years of study almost evaporate when four major hurricanes—Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma—plowed through the Atlantic.

Where the landscape used to be lush and completely green, wind and salt spray blasted the leaves off trees and bushes, leaving nothing but bare brown twigs and bald earth. The butterflies’ home was nearly destroyed, but enough survived for Daniels’ work to continue.

“A storm could completely wipe out the remaining population of the butterfly,” Daniels said.

During a release, Daniels has to wear a full mesh suit and face protection to shield him from the thousands of mosquitoes that share the butterflies’ habitat. Even so, the knuckles of his hands, which he has to leave uncovered to handle the butterflies, often swell with bites, he said.

In addition to his work with the Miami Blue, Daniels has planned five conservation-training workshops during the next three years. His goal is to teach staff members at botanical gardens, zoos and museums across the country about insect conservation biology.

With a lot of time and careful biological planning, Daniels hopes to get the Miami Blue removed from the endangered species list.

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “We won’t really know what’s happening until several years down the road.”

Photo credit: Kristen Bartlett Grace — University Photography

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