Here in the Conservation Department at the Minnesota Zoo, we love a road trip – especially when it involves field work for our prairie butterfly and moose conservation projects! We were excited to receive a new field research vehicle from Morrie’s Mazda on July 1st to support our work. And we’ve sure put it to good use so far, racking up 3,000 miles in 30 days!
Our inaugural expedition was to northeastern South Dakota in search of the one of the world’s rarest butterflies, the Endangered Dakota skipper. Formerly widespread across the diverse (and now largely gone) tallgrass prairies of Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, this orange butterfly disappeared from at least half of its last known populations in the last few decades for unknown reasons. These South Dakota populations are one of the last known, and may be the largest remaining globally. Dakota skippers are home-bodies. Some butterflies such as Monarchs can fly hundreds of miles, but a Dakota skipper will likely not stray more than a few hundred feet. Once Dakota skippers vanish from a site, they are likely gone from there forever.
Happily, Dr. Erik Runquist, coordinator of the Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program, and our partners found robust Dakota skipper populations and many other prairie butterflies like the majestic but imperiled Regal fritillary. Erik also collected eggs with our partners from a limited number of wild Dakota skipper females to help establish the world’s first and only conservation breeding population of Dakota skippers. These eggs were brought back to the Minnesota Zoo where they hatched into tiny green caterpillars. We will be rearing throughout the year and then breeding them next summer.
Next we headed to protected prairies in west-central Minnesota, north of Moorhead. Like the work in South Dakota, Butterfly Conservation Specialist, Cale Nordmeyer, was on a mission to find Dakota skippers here in Minnesota. Previous surveys suggest that a small prairie complex dominated by black-eyed susans, purple coneflowers, and large glacier-deposited boulders may hold our state’s last population of Dakota skippers. We were thrilled to find numerous Dakota skippers, and managed to bring some additional eggs from a handful of females to the Zoo to strengthen the conservation breeding population for this endangered species.
Finally, the field vehicle headed up north along Lake Superior and then west to the picturesque conifer-hardwood forests of Lake County. Dr. Tara Harris, the Zoo’s Vice President for Conservation, went to check in on the Zoo’s wolf-moose project. In collaboration with scientists at the University of Minnesota Duluth, we’re working to understand how wolves and moose move across the landscape and interact with one another. Understanding these types of predator-prey interactions is important for wildlife and forest management. Dr. Brian Kot, a research scientist at the Minnesota Zoo, places GPS tracking collars on wolves and compares their movements with those of collared moose. On this trip, we saw lots of wolf prints and scat, as well as signs of deer and moose. We also saw (and felt) our fair share of mosquitos, black flies, and deer flies, but it was worth it to be out in the beautiful North Woods, studying wildlife.
Keep your eyes out for the field vehicle as we take it across Minnesota on more wildlife adventures!