Smokies Science Series Returns with a Spotlight on Butterflies

Smokies Science Series Returns with a Spotlight on Butterflies

Aaron Searcy

by Aaron Searcy, Publications Associate

Warren Bielenberg spends a lot of time photographing Southern Appalachian butterflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But he willingly admits that his journey of butterfly discovery didn’t begin in earnest until he retired from 34 years as a park ranger and began volunteering in Cades Cove.

“One day there was a family of three with a little girl, maybe 11 or 12 years old, near a group of blue butterflies along the road,” said Bielenberg. “I went over and said they looked like pipevine swallowtails. But then the little girl immediately corrected me and said, ‘No, those are spicebush swallowtails!’ I’d never heard of them, but she pointed out a very subtle difference between the two.”

Warren Bielenberg holding a butterfly
Science at Sugarlands presenter Warren Bielenberg holds a butterfly collected in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park is home to nearly 2,000 different species of moths and butterflies. Photo courtesy Warren Bielenberg.

That experience serves as a reminder to Bielenberg that, no matter your age, there is always more to learn. He’ll help others dive into the world of Southern Appalachian butterflies on Friday, May 21, when park partner organization Discover Life in America (DLiA) kicks off its free Science at Sugarlands speaker series. For this, the first in a six-part education series, Bielenberg will share findings from a long-term butterfly survey program in the Cades Cove area.

“They like sunny, warm, calm days—and lots of flowers,” said Bielenberg, “which makes Cades Cove one of the best butterfly destinations in the park.”

The Science at Sugarlands series was created in 2017 to provide an opportunity for regional scientists to share their research with general audiences, answer questions, and discuss the latest issues affecting regional biodiversity and conservation. This year, DLiA will host its annual speaker series online from 1 to 3 p.m. on the third Friday of every month from May through October. Registration for the first free event is currently open at dlia.org.

“The whole idea is to bring some of the more obscure and interesting species and groups of organisms to the forefront, so the public can be as fascinated as we are by these animals and plants we get to learn about through the ATBI,” said Todd Witcher, executive director of DLiA.

Coral hairstreak butterfly
A coral hairstreak (Satyrium Titus) spotted on a native butterfly weed food plant. Warren Bielenberg documented the first sighting of a coral hairstreak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo courtesy Warren Bielenberg.

The ATBI, or the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, is a joint effort between DLiA and the National Park System begun in 1998 to identify and understand every species within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Through the project, DLiA has helped add more than 10,000 species to the inventory of life in the park and more than 1,000 species entirely new to science.

“Most people think of a few well-known types of butterflies and moths that exist in the park and the surrounding areas, like monarchs or tiger swallowtails,” said Witcher. “But it’s important to realize the breadth of diversity in the park, and for this particular group, Lepidoptera, there are not just a few but almost 2,000 different species in the park. And we have to protect every last one of them.”

Butterflies are typically active in the Great Smoky Mountains from April through late October. In addition to Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, also offers prime butterfly viewing thanks to its abundance of water, food sources, and larval host plants. With their eye-catching flashes of color and leisurely, floating pace, butterflies make for great wildlife watching can often be easy subjects to approach and photograph. In the warmer months, many species will congregate in damp areas in a phenomenon known as “puddling.”

Observing and photographing butterflies is also valuable to science. According to Bielenberg, public use of wildlife identification apps like iNaturalist and long-term butterfly surveying efforts like the one in Cades Cove are key to understanding trends impacting global biodiversity.

Common buckeye
A common buckeye (Junonia coenia). Common buckeyes prefer sunny, open areas with low vegetation. Photo courtesy Warren Bielenberg.

“Survey routes established on public lands can be surveyed year after year without having to worry about changes in land ownership,” said Bielenberg. “This lets you track long-term changes in butterfly species along with habitat change within that route.”

Butterflies are foundational to ecosystems around the world as pollinating insects. Since some can be considered indicator species, recording changes in their numbers over time gives researchers valuable insights into a larger picture of ecological health. Such long-term monitoring has shown declines in the total abundance of important insects like bees, moths, and butterflies—attributable to pesticide use, climate change, and habitat loss due to development and agriculture.

Through the return of the Science at Sugarlands series, Bielenberg hopes to invite others to tune in to the important and endlessly fascinating world of butterflies.

“It’s just another good reason to get outside and pay attention,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to see.”

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