For the love of butterflies

For Scientist Marc Minno and His Wife, Maria,a Fascination with these Winged Creatures Has Led to a Life Protecting Them


Metamorphosis of the Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon) showing caterpillar, chrysalis and adult.

istockphoto.com
Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 10:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 10:48 p.m.

Butterfly lovers take note: The delicate and enchanting wisps of nature are always in residence in the Sunshine State.

While the dramatic north-to-south and south-to-north migrations take place from late summer until mid-October, there's still plenty for butterfly lovers to do in the cooler months to get ready for a new season.

A good place to start would be the work of author/naturalist/scientist Marc C. Minno, a supervising regulatory scientist for the St. Johns Water Management District, and his wife Maria. The Minnos, true lovers of butterflies, are also experts. Through their consulting firm, the couple helps government agencies and municipalities set up programs relating to endangered species of plants and butteries, as well as programs to deal with invasive, non-native plants.

Marc Minno, who holds a doctorate in zoology from the University of Florida, is an expert on endangered butterflies and their habitats. He says he's been fascinated with butterflies since he was a young child in Western Pennsylvania, which didn't have the diversity of butterflies that Florida does.

He's the author of a number of academic articles as well as books for the general public on butterflies (see Butterfly Reading List).  New this fall, produced with Maria, is "Butterflies of the Florida Keys: A Guide to Common and Notable Species," the first in a series of full-color, fold-out, laminated, rapid-reference identification guides to Florida butterflies. Waterproofed and equivalent to about 12 pages, it is meant to be taken out into the field.

Guides for Southeast and Southwest Florida are planned for spring 2010 to be followed by Central and North Florida guides in fall 2010. Also coming in 2010 from the U.S. Forest Service is "Rare, Declining, and Poorly Known Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera) of Forest and Woodlands in the Eastern U.S.," which Marc Minno co-authored with D.F. Schweitzer and D. L. Wagner.

The need for such a variety of books about Florida butterflies is part of the reason for Marc Minno's fascination with the state's biodiversity and the wide range of flora and fauna.

"Each habitat [in Florida] has its own butterflies," he says. "Florida is an amazing place for the tremendous changes within short distances. Starting in St. Augustine, there is a marine-type environment with salt marshes, beach dunes, mangroves, special butterflies."  Then moving inward, the environment is hammocks, sand hills, and pine scrubs, he explains.

"Florida has attracted biologists for centuries," he says, "such as Audubon and Bartram in the 1700s. It's a tremendous place for biologists to study and travel and see things. Even today, it's possible to still find butterflies so rare and uncommon they haven't been uncovered yet. That makes them interesting."

Because of Florida's location, every year butterflies may come in from Cuba, the Bahamas, and even by hitching rides on campers that travel from the northern United States to Florida, the zoologist adds.

With so much diversity, Florida is naturally a good place to experience butterfly migrations. A well-known sighting is the passage of Monarch butterflies that fly through St. Marks south of Tallahassee in early fall on their long flight from Canada to Mexico, Minno says. 

Less well known are south-to-north migrating coastal butterflies, such as the Great Southern White.  "Some years they start flying north in vast clouds to the Carolinas," he says.

  Tracking such migrations is only a part of the story. Much  of the work Marc and Maria Minno do is with butterflies that are endangered or potentially endangered,  such as two specific species of Skipper butterflies – Rockland Meske Skipper and Zestos Skipper – that are native to the Florida Keys.  "I've been looking for those the last three years in remote places in the Everglades National Park and throughout the Keys where they used to be,"  he says.

While development is a factor in the loss of species and the numbers of butterflies, the causes aren't simple. "For a species to disappear, it's a combination of factors," Minno says.

The Keys, for example, are small islands with minimal habitat to begin with, he says, and two-thirds of the Upper Keys are developed. "Tiny islands are difficult because animals need a certain size habitat." Inland, the loss of native grasslands and the conversion of prairies to commercial pine production have likewise taken their toll. One species hard hit is the Argos Skipper, a small prairie butterfly with only about a dozen known colonies.

Particularly lethal to butterflies have been two other factors in the South's changing ecology – mosquito spraying and the gradual invasion of predatory fire ants. "We didn't have fire ants here eating things 100 years ago," Marc Minno says. "They have crept through the South so slowly people haven't noticed." Likewise, when mosquitoes are killed by insecticides, so, too, are butterflies in various stages of development.

While preserving habitats is the logical first step to saving butterflies – the Swallowtail in the Keys is one of the few insects on the federal endangered species list – education is also important. To further awareness, Minno recently donated his extensive collection of butterfly specimens to the McGuire Center at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "It's a mecca for anyone who does research on butterflies, including visiting professors," he says.

He and Maria advocate for the many things home gardeners can do to save the beautiful creatures that are integral to plant propagation.

 "If everyone planted just one or two plants that are good for butterflies and birds, it would make a huge difference," says Maria Minno, who has a master's degree in botany from UF and runs a home-based environmental consulting business. Gardeners, she says, can start out with easy-to-grow nectar plants, such as lantana and pentas, and plants that promote egg laying such as sweet herbs and carrots.

And because specific species of butterflies are attracted to specific plants, basic background in native plants will help a butterfly lover create an enticing sanctuary. The Minnos recommend two active local chapters for help in getting started — the Florida Native Plant Society, which holds plant sales and seminars, and the North America Butterfly Association.

And while studying and photographing the approximately 170 species of butterflies in the state is consuming work, the Minnos actually have a much larger project on the horizon – a book on the state's 3,000 to 4,000 moths.

"We are slowly working on that," Mark Minno says. "It's a huge subject."

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