TOPSHAM — The one statistic that stood out of wildlife biologist Phillip deMaynadier’s talk on Maine’s butterflies last week carried a troubling note every time he mentioned it:
Of the 123 butterfly species that are native to Maine, 26 are listed as extinct in the state, endangered or of special concern to biologists. It’s a trend that extends far beyond Maine, in fact.
“If you care about life on Earth, it’s a very important group to care about,” deMaynadier told a group of 70 at the Topsham Library.
That’s a key reason the Maine Butterfly Survey – in which volunteers help biologists find and record butterflies – was launched in 2007. The survey has proven an overwhelming success, but the status of Maine’s butterfly species has not improved, deMaynadier said.
The next annual workshop to train butterfly trackers will be held May 17 at Colby College in Waterville.
Trackers can participate in anywhere in the state and any time of day.
“Butterflies are easy to work with. You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to see them,” deMaynadier said.
To date deMaynadier said the survey has trained 219 volunteers and been assisted by 120 butterfly trackers who regularly participate. He said Mainers have collected 19,370 new records, including information about 10 new butterfly species in the state, including one that is a new U.S. record. That species, the short-tailed swallowtail butterfly, was identified in northern Maine.
“We never expected to recruit this much interest,” said deMaynadier, a wildlife research biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Bob and Rose Marie Gobeil are two of the more active participants in the survey. The Saco couple spends two to three days a week through the summer traveling to fields from York to Androscoggin counties to collect data.
A former college professor who taught biology at St. Francis College (now the University of New England), Bob Gobeil has studied butterflies his whole life. Now 71, he said participating in the study is a meaningful way to spend summer days in his retirement. And Gobeil believes the data could help the state to protect some butterfly species.
“We love to spend time outdoors, and to hike, so we do that as we survey. There are a lot of sites we enjoy going to,” he said. “I think in all areas of nature we are seeing populations declining. It doesn’t make me feel badly, but hopefully with this data we can protect areas where they’re finding more butterflies.”
The Maine Butterfly Survey is following in the successful path of other studies using citizen scientists. Volunteers have aided biologists at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in such endeavors as Maine’s reptile and amphibian survey, its frogs and toad survey, and its breeding bird survey.
And yet, deMaynadier said butterfly species appear to be struggling in Maine and worldwide for a variety of reasons.
In the case of the monarch, perhaps the most widely recognizable butterfly, he said there has been a significant decline in its numbers because of loss of habitat and the loss of the host plant it uses to breed.
While scientists still do not understand much about the migration of the monarch butterflies, deMaynadier said it’s clear the Mexican mountains serve as the wintering grounds for more than 90 percent of the world’s monarch population. And he said there the loss and division of forestland has hurt the population, whittling down the wintering area to less than 2 acres, where it once covered hundreds.
“They only weigh a couple of grams, but make a 2,000- to 3,000-mile migration journey to those wintering grounds,” deMaynadier said. “Scientists are still trying to figure out how these animals know where to go. It is still a complete mystery.”
The loss of habitat coupled with the loss of milkweed across the nation’s farmlands due to changing farming practices has resulted in a steady decline of monarchs, he said. Butterflies use a specific host plant to reproduce. In the case of the monarch butterfly, the milkweed plant is a necessity for the species to continue.
“The North American population of monarchs now occupies a (wintering) area about 1.5 acres in size. Let’s hope they bounce back,” deMaynadier said.
But the plight of the monarch is but one story of how habitat loss and environmental stresses are hurting butterfly populations.
In southern Maine, where many of Maine’s rare and beautiful butterflies breed, the loss of certain plants due to habitat loss has hurt other butterfly populations, deMaynadier said.
“All of these stresses are driving population downward trends,” deMaynadier said.
Those interested in helping with the survey can contact deMaynadier at email@example.com.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: