Monday, November 23, 2009

The Art of Conservation and the Butterfly

Pipevine Swallowtail by Bob Moul

I’m living in Austin, Texas and was invited on a road
trip to see the gulf coast by my friend Deb. I had read
that south Texas has approximately 600 species of
butterflies. A trip south for me meant not only a
chance to see the coast, but a chance to see butterfly
country. Mission, Texas is home to the North
American Butterfly Association’s (NABA) Inter-
national Butterfly Park. Seeing that I was close to
Mission, I took a day trip from South Padre Island
to the Butterfly Park. The drive was a little over an

After arriving in Mission, I stepped out of the car and
noticed the sweet smells mingling in the air, and the
play of light on the bushes, trees and grasses. Butter-
flies fluttered amongst the growth. I stepped into the
house that serves as the center’s hub and paid my
minimal $5.00 entrance fee. I walked amongst the
flowering trees and bushes that lined the paths and
read the ID tags for the flora and fauna as butterflies
touched down on flowers, then flew away. I walked
the breadth of the park and then along the wooded
It was a windy day in late March. The best time to
see butterflies is when there is little to no wind. I
ran into a man with binoculars and we compared
notes on what butterflies we had seen so far despite
the wind. We had both spotted a couple of Pipevine
Swallowtails and Red Bordered Pixies. Of the four
people meandering in the park, it turned out that I
had run into Jeffery Glassberg the founder and
president of NABA.

Jeffrey, an adjunct professor at Rice University,
claimed that Mission is the best location in North
America for butterfly watching. He was a
molecular biologist before becoming an ecology
and evolutionary biologist.

His goal for the Butterfly Park is to make it a field
station for Rice University. It will also serve as an
educational outreach center. People come from
Canada, England, Australia, France, and Germany
specifically for NABA. These very same people
travel to South America and Cuba as well to pursue
butterfly watching or 'butterflying' as it is known.
“You can see more varieties of butterflies here in a
day than anywhere else,” Jeffrey tells me.

Red Bordered Pixie by Richard Crook

Although the butterfly is a model system for cellular
development from egg to adult, known as metamor-
phosis, the butterfly's importance for the environment
is pollination. For instance the native Verbana plant’s
pollination is done through the butterfly. Thus the
butterfly is linked to the habitat through specific
plants. It is his belief that an area needs “native things,
otherwise there is no reality in the area.”
One of the ongoing, long term projects for NABA is
revegetation. The health of the environment can be
monitored through revegetation. The diversity of an
area can be measured through the butterfly, since the
butterfly population will tell you how successful the
revegetation process has been.
Jeffrey sees butterflying as a way to bring people
into the environmental movement. “If you conserve
a habitat for a butterfly, you are conserving it for
everything. You can save a piece of the world.”
Conserving and revegetation is a growing move-
ment that is building momentum.

Jeffrey Glassberg by Susan Doheny

Butterflying is growing in popularity also. Birding,
which preceded the popularity of butterflying,
used to be the domain of collectors and taxono-
mists. For instance, before 1900 birds were
categorized by Audubon. Gradually birding became
a popular past time that could be done with
binoculars and cameras. These methods of observa-
tion have opened up to butterflying as well.

The future plans for Mission’s Butterfly Park is to
conduct some earthwork in order to build
different topography. The future gardens will be more
formal. An open building will also be added to the
site. The controversial wall between the US and
Mexico will not be on their property, rather, it will
be three quarters of a mile away.
How is it that a professor has come to be the steward
of property that he revegetates, reshapes, opens up to
field study for all to enjoy and observe the majestic
butterfly? Aside from authoring prominent field
guides to butterflies he’s patented a DNA finger-
printing method for Lifeco in an earlier career.
Humans are attracted to creatures of exquisite
beauty, and the butterfly is such a creature.
The process of conserving land, revegetating to
attract butterflies will in turn lure people into nature
to observe the wondrous butterfly.

Jeffrey Glassberg is the author of the Butterflies through
Binoculars field guide series.
Butterflies through Binoculars: The East,

Butterflies through Binoculars: The West, and
A Swift Guide to the Butterflies of Mexico and
Central America

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