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Rare butterflies may get to create new life at Fermilab

Doug TarCurator Biology Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum zips up cube used transport Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies thwere be released Fermilab Thursday

Doug Taron, Curator of Biology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum zips up the cube used to transport the Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies that were to be released at Fermilab on Thursday, June, 23, 2011 in Batavia. The release was postponed when cold weather and rain began to fall which could have hurt the butterflies chances of survival. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:55AM

BATAVIA — Biologists hope a rare and declining butterfly — the Baltimore checkerspot — will make a triumphant return to the lush native wetlands of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Fermilab, internationally recognized for breaking new frontiers in physics research, became a hotspot for nature biologists attending the Imperiled Conservation and Management Conference at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

Doug Taron, the nature museum’s curator of biology, led an entourage Thursday to Batavia’s wetlands and marsh areas for the release of 70 butterflies, where they hope the species will flourish near their favorite white turtlehead plants.

If only the weather was better.

Sudden changes in the wind — combined with the drizzly, cool weather of recent days — created a micro-climate that delayed the experiment at least partially.

A majority of the butterflies didn’t flutter out of their mesh cage Thursday afternoon.

“We tried taking one out by shaking it off of my finger, but rather than flying to the vegetation and perching, it dropped to the ground — not a good sign,” Taron said.

Nine Baltimore checkerspots were released into three butterfly cages with host plant material.

“The cages should give them protection,” Taron said.

The majority will return to Fermilab in a few days when the weather improves, he said.

The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly is considered an imperiled species, meaning they are not on the verge of extinction but their population is declining at an alarming rate due to the loss of quality wetlands.

Taron said they have a two-week window to release the raised butterflies into nature and for them to get acclimated to their new home, mate and lay eggs.

The Baltimore checkerspot has a 2½-inch dark brown body with wings that are spotted with orange and white. The butterfly is native to the north central and north eastern regions of the United States.

It thrives in habitat that has wet meadows, ditches and abundant with the white turtlehead, a host plant that is a member of the snapdragon family and has white, pink-rimmed flowers.

In 2009, the nature museum attempted to release Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars at Fermilab, but Taron said they believe dispersing them on individual plants made them vulnerable to the winter cold. Releasing females with males in cages close to their host plants will increase the likelihood they will lay eggs, he said.

There are 55 species of butterflies at Fermilab, but the Baltimore checkerspot is extremely rare in the region.

“This is another piece of the puzzle of restoring biodiversity in the wetlands,” said Ryan Campbell, Fermilab restoration ecologist.

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