Butterflies in the Mitten: What’s Hiding in Michigan’s Rare Ecosystems?

Butterflies in the Mitten: What’s Hiding in Michigan’s Rare Ecosystems?

We do a lot of talking about what makes Michigan unique: cities, breweries, athletics, music venues, trails, and – of course – the Great Lakes. For all it has to offer, there is still quite a bit that misses the radar completely. When we’re busy bragging about our state, most of us don’t stop to think about how we can tout our rare habitats, not to mention our rare insects. Maybe it sounds a little strange, but in light of all the press worldwide lately about declines in lepidoptera (i.e., butterflies and moths), let’s take a minute to celebrate the pretty pollinators that call the mitten home.

We all know and love the Monarch, one of the most well-studied and iconic butterflies, well-known for its admirable yearly migration between Canada and Mexico. “King of the Butterflies,” the monarch is called, and it is well worth our time and attention. But what about the lesser-knowns, though? Meet Mitchell’s Satyr (Neonympha mitchelli), one of the world’s rarest butterflies.

The Awesome Mitten - Butterflies in the Mitten
Mitchell’s satyr (Neonympha mitchelli), one of the world’s rarest butterflies. Photo by Dan Kennedy, MI DNR.

Once found spread throughout several states in the U.S., it now occurs at only a handful of sites in southwest Michigan and northern Indiana. Mitchell’s satyr might not be the prettiest butterfly you’ve ever seen – it is small (~1.5 in.-wingspan) and an unassuming light brown – but this little guy is still important! In addition to being one of the rarest of its kind, Mitchell’s satyr is also pretty exclusive about its habitat choices, namely what are called fens. Fens, or wetland areas that are mineral-rich with an accumulation of peat, are also considered globally rare; in fact, they occur only in areas scoured by glaciers in the Midwest (*cough* Great Lakes *cough*).

The Awesome Mitten - Butterflies in the Mitten
Prairie Fens are Mitchell’s satyr’s preferred habitat and are also globally rare. Photo by Chris Hoving, MI DNR.

I headed out with staff from the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) this summer to survey Mitchell’s satyr and other lepidoptera in a rare prairie fen in southwest Michigan. See, folks at MNFI and other conservation organizations are trying to gather as much data as they can in hopes of protecting these nested gems: one of the rarest habitats on earth, containing one of the rarest butterflies. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

After a long and arduous day of tromping through poison sumac, thick brush, and hidden natural sink holes (yes, I fell in – a LOT), I gained a new appreciation for prairie fens. These places are literally bursting with life – the species diversity is incredible! Deer, wild turkey, and more species of butterfly than you could imagine. But here’s the thing: we’re losing them. Wetland draining for agriculture, loss of important species like beavers, and other human disturbances are wiping these habitats off the map, and with them, Mitchell’s satyr and other species that depend on them.

So, “what’s the big deal?” you might be asking. What happens if we lose Mitchell’s satyr? Well, that means one less pollinator (acting in a feedback loop to keep fen vegetation thriving); one less meal for large wetland predators that depend on insects to survive; and one less thing that makes the mitten so special.

How can you help? Keep learning! Butterfly and moth surveys at local nature centers are becoming more popular, and are great family activities. Volunteer and spread the word about protecting these delicate systems!

The Awesome Mitten - Butterflies in the Mitten
Two of the many butterflies observed in the prairie fen with MNFI. Photos by Cassie Lovall

It’s easy to feel pride in our state; that’s what we do here at The Awesome Mitten, after all. However, some things aren’t celebrated enough in my opinion. I happen to feel pretty proud that Michigan contains these incredibly rare ecological wonders. These are a huge, yet underrated, part of what makes our state so great! Interested in Mitchell’s satyr? Many of the fens they prefer are located on private lands, but you can view them at the Sarrett Nature Center in Benton Harbor. These guys fly low among vegetation, but their flight pattern is hard to miss with a slow (and slightly wobbly) up and down bob – think sewing machine in slow motion. Happy hunting!

What are your favorite Michigan butterflies? Share with us below!

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Like many Michiganders, I have found myself continually drawn back to our great state after various explorations elsewhere (Virginia for graduate school, offshore Rhode Island for work). I just can't seem to stay away from all the awesome that the mitten has to offer. I am a proud Michigan State Spartan (Go Green!), and a nerd, plain and simple. I'm trained as a marine biologist, and have a soft spot for invertebrates (pun intended?). I love to read, bake, laugh, read, do yoga, camp, drink craft beer, and read. I'm happiest exploring the outdoors - especially the coasts of our Great Lakes! Come outside with me.