For endangered butterfly, beavers make best friends

American Beaver, (Photo/Steve in Washington D.C., Wikipedia)

A St. Francis' satyr butterfly (Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bambi and Thumper best move over. There’s a new BFF dynamo in the animal kingdom – the ever-industrious beaver and a rare butterfly fluttering dangerously close to extinction. But the gig’s not up for the butterfly just yet if the beaver has anything to do with it.

St. Francis’ satyr butterfly is appallingly rare. Somewhere between 700 and 1,400 individuals exist in the wild, scattered in a few small pockets of wetland meadow around North Carolina. But new science reveals that the well-known engineering nature of the American beaver has the bonus application of creating food and habitat for the vulnerable butterfly. The study is the first of its kind to demonstrate the combined benefits of an ecosystem engineer fostering biodiversity and abundance of plant species vital to the survival of a critically endangered species.

Lead-author of the study Rebecca A. Bartel, ecologist and post-doctoral student at the University of Georgia, looked at 48 sites on the Fort Bragg Military Reservation in south central North Carolina that ran the gamut of beaver occupation. She and her colleagues surveyed vegetation and butterflies between 2005 and 2006, and found that where beavers stirred things up with their beavering ways, plants species thrived, more than 180 species, several of which were imperative to the butterfly’s survival.

The relationship is not so cut and stacked, situations are optimum when habitat has a combination of different stages of beaver renovations. But Bartel’s results indicate that fostering native ecosystem engineers can not only improve species diversity, but help conserve habitat for critically endangered species. It’s a potentially powerful tool for conservation and managers.

At the very least, Bartel’s results spell a little bit of hope for St. Francis’ satyr butterfly, and another reason to up the awe factor of beavers and butterflies. And who doesn’t like that?

You can find the study in the journal Oikos.

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