October 3, 2008
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Candace Fallon, Senior Endangered Species Conservation Biologist and Public Lands Lead, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, (954) 815-5429, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tara Cornelisse, Senior Scientist, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6425, email@example.com.
For Immediate Release
BETHANY BEACH, Del.; May 15, 2019—The Center for Biological Diversity and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation filed an emergency petition today seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the critically imperiled Bethany Beach firefly.
The rare firefly has been documented at only seven sites along the Delaware coast — virtually all of them smaller than a football field. The wetland area that is home to the firefly’s largest-remaining population is currently being developed.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants the emergency request it would be the first time Endangered Species Act protections have been awarded to one of the nation’s approximately 170 firefly species.
“Without immediate protections, the magical green flashes known to generations of children will be snuffed out forever,” said Dr. Tara Cornelisse, an entomologist who is a senior scientist at the Center. “We can’t stand by and let development, climate change and pesticides wipe out these amazing creatures, along with their wetland homes that many species depend on.”
The Bethany Beach firefly has been pushed to the brink of extinction by urbanization, light pollution, habitat fragmentation, pesticides and climate change-induced sea-level rise and storm surges.
The firefly has nearly disappeared from three of its seven remaining sites. Six of the firefly’s seven remaining populations are in state parks, but only a single firefly was found at two of those sites during the most recent survey.
“We’re on the brink of losing a unique piece of Delaware’s biodiversity, one that symbolizes the very habitats that have drawn so many people to this state in the first place,” said Candace Fallon, petition coauthor and senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society. “There’s no question that this firefly urgently needs our help to prevent it from going extinct.”
Ongoing construction at the Tower Shores development continues to destroy important habitat for the firefly’s strongest remaining population. Loss of that population would greatly lessen the species’ chances of survival because these fireflies are weak fliers and rarely disperse beyond the habitat in which they were born.
When a population is lost it severely decreases connectivity between habitats, potentially reducing the number of mates available and, in turn, the number of eggs laid by females.
The Bethany Beach firefly is only found within 1,500 feet of the shore, making its habitat extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and increases in storm surges caused by climate change. The combination of higher water levels near housing developments and popular recreation areas has resulted in frequent spraying of pesticides to control mosquitoes with chemicals toxic to fireflies.
The Bethany Beach firefly flies at full darkness so that females can spot and blink in response to a male’s bright double green flash. After mating the females will continue to flash, but this time mimicking other firefly species to lure in males to eat them and gain their valuable protective toxins. These mating signals can be disrupted by habitat changes, and light pollution can change their courtship behavior and mating success.
Firefly larvae sometimes hunt communally, and feed on slugs, snails, earthworms and other insects by injecting paralyzing fluid before consuming their prey.
Fireflies live on every continent except Antarctica. But just as in Delaware, many of their populations are threatened by habitat destruction, light pollution, climate change and pesticides.
ABOUT THE XERCES SOCIETY FOR INVERTEBRATE CONSERVATION
The Xerces Society is a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat. Established in 1971, the Society is a trusted source for science-based information and advice. We collaborate with people and institutions at all levels and our work to protect pollinators encompasses all landscapes. Our team draws together experts from the fields of habitat restoration, entomology, botany and conservation biology with a single passion: protecting the life that sustains us. To learn more about our work, please visit www.xerces.org or follow us @xercessociety on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
ABOUT THE CENTER FOR BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Xerces Society has always been a champion for butterflies; not only are we named after a butterfly, but also butterfly conservation formed our very foundation. As a recipient of a Fulbright-Hays scholarship to Britain in the 1970s, a young Robert Michael Pyle was inspired by a talk he heard about the endangered large blue (Maculinea arion) in England. The US had lost its own blue butterfly, the Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces), and Bob was determined to take action to ensure other butterflies did not follow the same fate. Ideas took root on a train ride following the talk, and over the next few weeks and months connections were made, plans developed, and the Xerces Society blossomed. Over the years, the organization’s work expanded to include other terrestrial insects like moths and bees, and we now work on behalf of all invertebrates, including everything from bumble bees and other pollinators to stoneflies, fireflies, and freshwater mussels.
However, back in the 1970s, our focus was butterflies. The Xerces Society was powered in those fledgling years by an eclectic group of passionate conservationists. One of our pioneering members, Joan Mosenthal DeWind, was an avid butterfly gardener and accomplished amateur lepidopterist. A psychiatric social worker by day, in her spare time Joan championed butterfly conservation and strove to engage the next generation of butterfly enthusiasts. Joan and her husband Bill DeWind—a New York activist attorney—played an integral role in Xerces’ early years as a developing organization, with Joan serving as secretary, Bill providing legal advice, and both of them joining fundraising fieldtrips. Joan was also a talented artist and writer, and she and Jo Brewer, one of Xerces’ cofounders, often conspired together on early publications.
Throughout her life, Joan was known for her generosity. After she passed away in 1997, Bill established a research endowment fund in her name and asked Xerces to manage a grant program that would support student research to advance the conservation of butterflies and moths around the world. This grant—the Joan Mosenthal DeWind Award—has been given to at least two students every year since the program launched in 1999. In total, 44 students have been recipients of Bill and Joan’s generosity.
The requirements for the DeWind award are broad: applicants must be engaged in research leading to a university degree related to Lepidoptera conservation, with the intention to continue in this path after graduation. The proposal period opens around the beginning of November each year and closes two months later. During this time, applications come in from all over the world for a wide variety of projects. Our DeWind committee, made up of university professors and researchers who work closely in the Lepidoptera conservation world, reviews each of the proposals and ranks them based on quality of science and impact on Lepidoptera conservation. Award winners are selected and notified in the spring.
Previous DeWind awardees have studied everything from climate change effects on geometrid moths to mutualistic relationships between ants and blue butterflies. Research projects may take place in the field, the lab, or a combination of the two. Funded work has taken place across a broad geographic and ecological scope, as awardees have hailed not only from the US and Canada but from Brazil, Singapore, and the Czech Republic. It is exciting to review the breadth of proposed projects each year, to see trends in research topics and integration of new techniques and information. Our hope has always been that the work supported by the DeWind award will have broad implications for Lepidoptera conservation—students tackling big questions with real-world solutions.
The DeWind committee has wrapped up their reviews of this year’s proposals, and the Xerces Society is happy to announce the two recipients of our 2019 awards.
Niranjana Krishnan, a PhD candidate at Iowa State University, will receive an award for her project “Assessing the risk of insecticides to monarch butterflies.” Monarch butterfly populations have declined precipitously in the last few decades, resulting in a nationwide call to action to protect monarch resources and plant additional milkweed (the monarch’s host plant) in important breeding areas. Agricultural regions of the Midwest have been identified as particularly important breeding grounds for the monarch’s eastern population, yet relatively little is known about how agricultural pesticides affect monarchs. Knowing where and how to incorporate milkweed in this landscape will be a critical component of this species’ recovery plan. Krishnan will use funds from the DeWind award to evaluate the toxicity and exposure of agricultural insecticides to various life stages of monarch butterflies, using the information gleaned to help identify ideal locations for plantings.
Our second awardee, Molly Wiebush, is a master’s student at Florida State University. Wiebush’s project, “The importance of small-scale fire refugia for butterfly communities in an old-growth longleaf pine savanna,” examines how these butterfly communities respond to unburned patches within prescribed burns. Do unburned patches (i.e., fire refugia) contribute to the persistence of butterflies in fire-adapted landscapes? How important is small-scale heterogeneity for butterfly survival under different fire scenarios? This project also has broad conservation implications, since it can inform best management practices for using prescribed fire as a conservation tool for Lepidoptera.
The Xerces Society is proud to support young and early career researchers through Joan’s legacy. As a science-driven conservation organization, we take pride in engaging students in the scientific process while advancing our collective knowledge in support of Lepidoptera conservation efforts. It is our hope that the data collected for these projects do not end with the student’s thesis or dissertation; but rather that awardees will go on to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals, share and apply this knowledge where applicable, and pursue a career that continues to support conservation of this incredible group of animals.
If you are a student, or know a student who might be interested in this award, we encourage you to look out for our annual announcement, which goes out in late October or early November every year. This is posted on both the Xerces website and social media outlets, as well as on listservs such as Ecolog-L. To date, all but one recipient have been graduate students, but we encourage motivated undergrads whose studies could have broad impacts on Lepidoptera conservation to apply.
Dewind awardees often go on to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals including Conservation Biology, Ecology, Evolution, and the Journal of Insect Conservation. A growing list of publications by DeWind recipients is also available on our website.
Written by Candace Fallon, Xerces Society Senior Endangered Species Conservation Biologist and Public Lands Lead
Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Endangered Species Program.
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The building of a wall along the United States–Mexico border has become a topic of debate, in both private and public spheres. The majority of Americans (58%) oppose the border wall for a variety of social, economic, and environmental reasons. Political disputes over border wall funding also led to the record-breaking 35-day government shutdown from December 22, 2018 to January 25, 2019—which negatively affected hundreds of thousands of people and the services of several federal agencies—and still rumble on within Washington, D.C., as this blog is published. All of these are significant concerns, but as a conservation organization, the Xerces Society’s focus is on the border wall’s environmental implications.
Recently, debate about the potential environmental impacts of the border wall has been in the spotlight because construction would impact the National Butterfly Center, near Mission, Texas. The Xerces Society opposed putting the wall across the Center, and joined in calling for the federal government to reconsider moving forward with construction. The good news is that the Center appears to have a reprieve: The government funding bill approved by congress includes a ban on building the wall through several sites in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, including the National Butterfly Center.
However, the National Butterfly Center is a microcosm of what will happen on a larger environmental scale as a result of the border wall—even if only parts of the wall are built. And with news reports that President Trump will sign the funding bill today and declare a national emergency, this debate becomes more timely and urgent.
Over the past few decades, the Department of Homeland Security has already constructed 605 miles (974 kilometers) of border barriers. Because the total length of the continental border is 1,954 miles (3,145 km), more than 1,300 miles (2,090 kilometers) of barrier could still be built if the current administration has their way. In preparation, the DHS has been waiving all regulations that could hinder wall construction due to environmental, archeological, or cultural reasons—a list of some 27 acts including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, National Historic Preservation Act, and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act—setting a dangerous precedent of eroding key protections.
In addition to the policy implications of the border wall, there are other serious potential impacts for wildlife—especially species that need to move across the region to access habitat or to find mates. For them, the political construct of an international border has no meaning, but nevertheless the construction of a wall could be catastrophic. For instance, the jaguar (Panthera onca) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) are already threatened with extinction, and the border wall would add an additional stressor.
Similarly, some people have expressed concern about monarchs and other butterflies being unable to migrate or move over the wall. Although that is not a concern for most bee or butterfly species (including monarchs), there are some species that are low-flying, and whose movements could be hindered by a border barrier. The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino) is one example. The Quino checkerspot’s known populations straddle the border between California and Mexico and would be divided by the wall.
The real issue, however, is the loss of local habitat due to construction of the wall. New barriers and associated infrastructure will directly destroy tens of thousands of acres in some of the most diverse habitats in North America—undoubtedly negatively affecting local species. Although many media images have shown tall, narrow concrete and steel barriers, the border wall will impact a much wider swath of land—including the construction of service roads and associated buildings, and clearing vegetation on both sides of the barrier for visibility and ease of access. This is based partly on what has already occurred: the 605 miles of already-existing border barriers are serviced by 4,970 miles (8,000 kilometers) of roads, as well as thousands of miles of undesignated routes created by off-road patrol vehicles. Indeed, a recently published paper in Bioscience details the potential impacts of construction of the wall and associated infrastructure, including: the elimination or degradation of natural vegetation, killing animals both directly and through habitat loss, fragmenting habitats (thereby subdividing populations into smaller, more vulnerable units), and reducing habitat connectivity. According to the Bioscience paper, the wall could also change wildfire patterns.
The wall and associated infrastructure will also include nighttime lighting, which can disorient moths and other night flying insects that are vital food sources for species from birds to bats. Meanwhile, already-existing spans of border fence have “acted as dams in rainy season flash floods,” as detailed in this piece by National Geographic—notably causing damage to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona in 2008. The Bioscience paper also discusses this topic, raising concerns of soil erosion and the alteration of hydrological processes (e.g., floods) if the border barrier is expanded.
It is not just any land that will be impacted. In addition to family farms and other private property, the wall will negatively affect many areas that are species-rich and ecologically sensitive. Indeed, many animals and plant populations will be threatened if the wall is built. The Bioscience paper estimates that, if completed, the administration’s plan will bisect the geographic ranges of 1,506 native terrestrial and freshwater animal and plant species, including 62 species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.
The 1,500+ species listed in the paper include 199 invertebrates (178 insects, 11 snails and slugs, 9 aquatic mollusks, and 1 spider). Unfortunately, the paper likely underestimates the number of insects and other invertebrates that will be impacted, as the data is simply not available to assess most invertebrate species. Insects and other invertebrates are the least well-studied animals, and their ranges are not well-documented. We do know, however, that on a global level insects outnumber mammals 150:1—there are approximately 6,500 documented mammal species and almost 1 million documented insects. Considering that 163 mammal species are documented within the footprint of the border barrier area, there could potentially be over 24,000 insect species within the same area. (This estimate does not include invertebrates like mollusks and crustaceans.) Especially when you consider that the lands along the border also have relatively high butterfly and bee diversity, it is clear that the border wall’s impact on insects could be substantial.
In short, there are many reasons to oppose the wall along the southern border—including the loss of habitat for some of our smallest and most important animals. Accordingly, scientists and conservationists are adding their voices in opposition to the proposed border wall. Defenders of Wildlife organized an effort to encourage scientists to speak up on this issue. As part of that effort they helped publish the Bioscience article, which states:
“We urge the US government to recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political, and cultural value of the US–Mexico borderlands. National security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage.”
This paper has been signed by more than 2,900 scientists, including some from the Xerces Society.
In the face of mounting environmental challenges, the Xerces Society will continue to focus our attention on protecting, restoring, and enhancing habitat for invertebrates in all landscapes—urban and rural, farms and cities, roadsides and wildlands—so we can maintain invertebrate biodiversity for generations to come.