This Rare Butterfly Species Was Dying Out, So A Biologist Started A One-Man Conservation Effort

Long before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 brought about major infrastructural changes to the city, one persistent pleasure to behold was a specific subspecies of pipevine swallowtail. This large butterfly, its blue and black shimmering wings decorated with a cascade of orange dots, once flitted its way over the same hilly streets as today’s cable cars.

But as development of the city flourished in the 20th century, the butterfly got pushed out. Today, the California pipevine swallowtail, or Battus philenor hirsuta, is a rare sight indeed.

Though there are a number of reasons why, one major problem is their diet. After all, the San Francisco endemic butterflies only feed on one species of pipevine, also called Dutchman’s Pipe, which is a kind of creeping vine like ivy. Because these are their only host plants, shrinking green areas are a serious threat.

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But that’s not the only problem they face. In addition to their dietary restrictions, these lovely critters have a long metamorphosis stage where they are most vulnerable. Of course, butterflies begin as caterpillars, which cocoon themselves in a chrysalis before becoming adults. For the California pipevine swallowtail, though, that chrysalis stage can take from several weeks to a few months.

Unfortunately, attempts to reintroduce the butterfly in the past haven’t succeeded. For example, back in the late 1980s, butterfly enthusiast Barbara Deutsch released 500 caterpillars into San Francisco. But she might as well have been blowing in the wind for all the difference it made.

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But today there is a new conservationist on the scene: Tim Wong, 28, who curiously doesn’t even work with butterflies or insects. In fact, he’s an aquatic biologist at the California Academy of Sciences, where he cares for 38,000 marine animals.

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But like so many of us, he has always had a soft heart for butterflies. More so than most, however, as even since he was a kid Wong would collect caterpillars and successfully watch them change into butterflies under his care.

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“I first was inspired to raise butterflies when I was in elementary school,” Wong told Vox. Even outside of class, he would study them in the fields near his house. “We raised painted lady butterflies in the classroom, and I was amazed at the complete metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult.”

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It was only when he got older that he realized the beautiful California pipevine swallowtail was in serious trouble. Then he decided that it was up to him to bring the butterfly back from the brink – because if not him, who?

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Of course, the first thing he needed were the elements of a butterfly sanctuary: caterpillars and food. Unfortunately, the plant that these butterflies feed on was rare itself, and Wong said the trouble he went through to obtain it would “not [be] for everyone.”

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“Finally, I was able to find this plant in the San Francisco Botanical Garden and they allowed me to take a few clippings of the plant,” he said. Naturally, the next thing was to find some pioneering caterpillars for his greenhouse.

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Thankfully, he managed to get some by going outside of the city, as well as asking around and getting permission to go exploring on people’s land. Now these caterpillars just needed a home.

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So, in his own backyard Wong built a “Butterfly Paradise.” It was similar to a greenhouse, but one that doesn’t separate the butterflies from their natural climate. He said, “I built a large screen to allow them to mate under outdoor environmental conditions – natural sun, airflow, temp fluctuations.”

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And who can argue that the caterpillars aren’t kind of cute? “They feed as a little army: they roam around the pipevine plant from leaf to leaf, munching on it as a group,” Wong said.

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In this little habitat, then, the caterpillars pupated and, later when they hatched, out came the butterflies! The animals live for about a month and during this time they breed and lay small, red eggs on the pipevine.

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Wong has said that he collects the eggs personally and takes them indoors to carefully incubate them. This also keeps the eggs out of the mouths of predators like earwigs, as, under Wong’s design, the greenhouse is open to the natural environment.

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All that was started in 2012. Now, incredibly, he has been able to reintroduce the California pipevine swallowtail butterfly back to San Francisco. “Each year since 2012, we’ve seen more butterflies surviving in the garden, flying around, laying eggs, successfully pupating, and emerge the following year. That’s a good sign that our efforts are working!” said Wong.

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Wong added that much of the reason for his success is due to the attention that he put in to the butterfly habitat. In fact, over the last few years he’s grown more than 200 of the butterfly’s choice vine. He even has nectar plants providing refreshment for the butterflies as well.

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What’s more, so far he’s been transporting all of his excess caterpillars to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. And where once he was only able to take a few hundred at time, he has now claimed that he can take thousands.

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In fact, now that Wong has single-handedly reintroduced the butterfly to its native city, he’s encouraging other people to do the same. He said, “Improving habitat for native fauna is something anyone can do. Conservation and stewardship can start in your very own backyard.”

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