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  • The Brenton Blue

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    Tags: butterfly conservation, south africa, butterfly, benton blue, ecosystem, carpenter ants

    Created: 12/16/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

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    The Brenton Blue, or How I Unexpectedly Encountered Butterfly Conservation Halfway Around the World

    I'm just back from a vacation in South Africa.  It's a lovely, amazing country that I am completely smitten with. And while I was hoping to see and photograph some of the country's gorgeous butterflies, my expectation was that I would encounter mostly very common species.

    One of the places where I stayed was at an eco-lodge just outside of the beautiful seaside town of Knysna, on the Indian Ocean. While perusing a binder of information about the region's ecology, I happened upon a photo of a blue butterfly. The Brenton Blue is a critically endangered species that clings to existence on a tiny 6-acre parcel of land about a half hour away from the lodge. I asked the lodge's owner if she knew anything about the butterfly. She said, "let me make a quick phone call," then returned to tell me that the biologist who looks after the site said that the butterfly was flying and that he would be at the site working in about an hour. Would I like to meet him?

    An hour later, I arrived at the Brenton Blue Butterfly Reserve, where I had the opportunity to meet Dr. David Edge, one of South Africa's premiere conservation biologists working with butterflies. We spent about an hour together discussing our conservation work, and I was delighted to make contact with a colleague in a distant part of the world. He has done some amazing work elucidating the complex life cycle and conservation needs of this remarkable species.

    Dr. David Edge (l) and Dr. Doug Taron (r)
    Dr. David Edge (l) and Dr. Doug Taron (r)

    The Brenton Blue is a small butterfly that lives exclusively in Knysna coastal fynbos- a very rare type of shrub-land ecosystem. The females lay eggs on a type of a legume that grows in this community. Only the youngest larvae feed on the legume's leaves. As they grow, they are found by members of one species of carpenter ant and spirited off to their nests. At this point their diet changes and they feed on the developing ant brood. The ants don't get much in return- the caterpillars exude drops of sugary honeydew liquid, which the ants consume. One of the reasons that the species is so rare is that it needs such a precise combination of disparate ingredients to maintain a population: the plant community, the host plant, and the carpenter ants.

    Brenton Blue larvae host plant: Indigofera erecta
    Brenton Blue larvae host plant: Indigofera erecta

    Unfortunately I was only able to take one very poor photograph of the butterfly, however I hope to return some day to see how the population is faring.

    Brenton Blue
    Brenton Blue, Photo copyright D. Britton,
    via http://www.brentonblue.org.za/

    Doug Taron, Curator of Biology

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