A 30 mile stretch along the North Carolina coast is the only place in the world where you will find a species of butterfly called the crystal skipper. This newly identified butterfly is found along Bogue Banks, from the Rachel Carson Reserve and Fort Macon State Park to as far south as Bear Island. Because of its limited range, preserving their habitat is critical to the species survival. Scientist Allison Leidner works at NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. in the Earth Sciences Division through a cooperative agreement. She’s studied the ecology and conservation of the crystal skipper for the last decade.
“Well, I think it’s the most beautiful butterfly in the world. “It’s small, and it’s brown. And it has white spots on its wings that if you squint a little kind of look like crystals.”
The butterfly was actually discovered in 1978 by American Museum of Natural History entomologist Dr. Eric Quinter at Fort Macon State Park. Nearly 40 years later, it is now officially recognized as a full species and given the scientific name Atrytonopsis quinteri.
"Now that this species is named, we really can say this with certainty now that this is a species and now I think it's going to help inspire conservation because it's hard to conserve something you haven't named."
Leidner gave the crystal skipper its common name, which she says comes from its appearance and the fact that it is found at the Crystal Coast.
“At the time I was doing my research, it was being referred to as “atrytonopsis new species 1.” That’s a mouthful and it’s not going to really excite the kids that I would meet on the beach that wanted to know what I was doing. So I really thought hard about how I could give this a common name that would resonate with people. I decided to give it the name the crystal skipper.”
Leidner started researching the crystal skipper in the spring of 2005, while in the first year of her PhD at North Carolina State University. Her work focused on conservation strategies and the impacts of habitat fragmentation.
“That is the separation of natural areas that were once continuous, but are now broken up by farms, or by houses, or by strip malls, or by roads, and understanding what impact that has on that species broadly, and more importantly, what is it that we can do to implement conservation measures that would help plants and animals that have been effected by habitat fragmentation.”
Much of the natural habitat on Bogue Banks has been developed, leaving only small segments for the crystal skipper. Habitat fragmentation can be detrimental to the species because it creates isolated populations of butterflies, making them susceptible to inbreeding and natural events, like tropical storms and hurricanes.
“This butterfly evolved in an environment that was naturally dynamic. Barrier islands are dynamic, hurricanes come through and potentially wipe out an entire population. Now, what could happen is that butterflies in other parts of the sand dunes can kind of fly down into areas that have been wiped out and recolonize an area. But when you have habitat fragmentation, that movement may be limited.”
The crystal skipper’s habitat is also limited by where their host plant, seaside little bluestem is found. The butterfly, which has two broods per year, lays its eggs on the one to two foot tall, bunch grass. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars feed on the plant.
“And so where you find seaside little blue stem, in this general area, you find the crystal skipper. Now seaside little blue stem itself has a much wider distribution all up and down the eastern seaboard as well as the gulf coast. But it has a patchy distribution. So if you go to the north/south barrier islands like along Cape Lookout National Seashore and Cape Hatteras, you don’t really find the plant in abundance. And as you move farther south, you also don’t find the plant quite as commonly.”
Crystal skippers are most abundant on Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro. The three mile long island is undeveloped and seaside little blue stem is plentiful. Leidner found that the key to crystal skipper conservation is rehabilitating areas along Bogue Banks that would make the landscape more connected to places where the butterfly thrives, like Bear Island and Fort Macon. She calls this creating “stepping stones.”
“This butterfly moves around a lot so it uses these very small patches of habitat in people’s backyards, in un-landscaped yards, and also in undeveloped lots and places where there’s lots of seaside little blue stem. This butterfly uses these places to get back and forth and even actually uses these small areas as habitat.”
To find out if this conservation approach would work, a sandy half acre plot at the Rachel Carson Reserve was set aside in 2008 for a crystal skipper habitat rehabilitation project. On Tuesday, I met Central Sites Manger Paula Gillikin at the Duke Marine Lab dock at Piver’s Island to catch a boat ride to Carrot Island. As we pull out of the dock and make our way towards Taylors Creek, Gillikin points to Carrot Island a couple hundred yards in the distance.
“So the west end of the island, you’ll see some bushes over there, and the habitat behind those bushes is a nice area of seaside little blue stem which is the crystal skipper host plant.”
This is where the first crystal skipper was officially documented at the Rachel Carson Reserve in 2008, though they were probably here before that. After a 15 minute boat ride, we pull up to the Carrot Island boardwalk, across from The Boathouse at Front Street Village. From here, it’s just a short walk to the rehabilitation area. The 21,500 square foot spot is surrounded by a fence, with a couple short, cedar shrubs and grass plants dotting the landscape.
“It is an area that the Army Corps of Engineers deposited dredge sand on and we got permission to execute this project here. It was mostly sandy when we started and we have planted several thousand native plants including seaside little blue stem inside this fenced area.”
The restoration site was completed in 2010, and has served as a stepping stone habitat for the crystal skipper. It also helps offset a loss of natural habitat at the west end of Carrot Island, near Beaufort Inlet, which is experiencing a high rate of erosion. Gillikin says there are other conservation challenges that are unique to Carrot Island.
“So here, we have the globally rare but locally abundant crystal skipper butterfly. But we have a wild horse, which is a pretty rare thing as well. And they’re both valued for some of the reasons. The horses are symbols of wildness, and freedom and they’re a cultural resource. So when we go to manage species like the crystal skipper, we have to take that into consideration.”
The wild horses on Carrot Island like to munch on seaside little blue stem. Gillikin points out several spots outside of the fenced in habitat where the plant is chewed to the ground by horses. That’s why a four foot tall fence was installed around the rehabilitation area.
“The butterfly can access this undisturbed habitat without having the trampling and grazing effects of the wild horses.”
The rehabilitation project, located on the public boardwalk with informational signage, serves as an educational tool and Gillikin hopes it inspires people to consider improving habitat for the crystal skipper on their own property. It also provides a place where people can observe this butterfly up close.
“If you’re looking during the period when they’re in flight, which is in the Spring in April and in the Summer in late July and early August, if you’re in their habitat and you’re quiet and you look closely, it’s a pretty common sighting. But if you’re not looking, they are easily missed. So for many people, it’s a pretty special occasion when they get to see one of the butterflies.”
During the cold winter months, the crystal skipper caterpillars overwinter at the base of the sea side little blue stem plant. Sightings this time of year are very rare. But if you’d like to see a picture of the crystal skipper, visit our website at publicradioeast.org.