The Butterfly Effect
How do scientists keep going when extinction feels inevitable?
It used to be, if you wanted to see a Poweshiek skipperling butterfly, the thing to do was go out on the prairie and stare into the middle distance, like you were trying to see a sailboat buried in a Magic Eye painting. Just watch, and wait, and they’d appear.
Back then, more than 20 years ago, there were Poweshieks seemingly everywhere you looked in the Upper Midwest and Canada. Little, erratic, flapping things, Poweshieks are all rust and brown fuzz, no bigger than a quarter. They thrived on the endless golden zen gardens of protected tallgrass, but you could also spot the metallic sheen of their wings dancing among the black-eyed Susans in an overgrown railroad siding, or bounding through grassy ditches pinned between the state highway and a soybean field. “All of a sudden, you’d just see this little sparkle shoot across,” said Cale Nordmeyer, a butterfly conservation specialist at the Minnesota Zoo. “Nothing else on the prairie does that.”
Now, mostly, nothing at all does that. The Poweshieks are all but gone, confined to a patchy mange of small, isolated habitats in Michigan and Manitoba. Even there, survival is precarious, and humans have become a part of the species’ life cycle. Researchers collect the white butterfly eggs — each tiny and round like the period on the end of a sentence — and hatch them in captivity, where the caterpillars are supplied with their favorite foods and conditions replicating a perfect Northern winter. In spring, the scientists carry cocoons back to the prairie and release the adult butterflies — guests now on grasslands that once belonged to them.
Our hands are all over these butterflies, yet still they slip through our grasp. This July, in 16 days of searching through the marshy prairie fens of central Michigan, a team of researchers were able to collect four wild females, perhaps some of the last wild members of the species in the whole United States. By the time you’re reading this, these Poweshieks will have died — the average adult only lives for a couple weeks. Some of their offspring are growing on a zoo backlot, slivers of green clinging to stalks of grass in plastic pots. But it’s anyone’s guess whether other caterpillars are out there under the Michigan sky.
The Poweshiek skipperling is just one threatened species in a world where a thousand tiny things are dying every day, an era of mass extinctions that’s been creeping up on us for decades. If humans stop trying to keep the Poweshieks alive, even for a year, the species could disappear. If humans don’t stop, it might well go extinct anyway. Even successfully staving off the species’ demise would likely mean these butterflies limp into the future changed in fundamental ways — living in different places, under different conditions than they did before Western civilization staked a claim to the prairie.
We are skirting tragedy in a time of certain uncertainty. Nobody knows whether the Poweshiek skipperlings have reached their end, or whether they’re starting on a new beginning. Probably it’s both, at once. But either way, these butterflies represent a moment of reckoning and wrestling, as environmental scientists struggle to find hope in a world where losing battles are the ones most likely to be fought.
The last known U.S. habitat of wild Poweshieks is a series of small prairies, the biggest maybe the size of a city block, clustered around a lake in Michigan. The specific location is kept a secret in order to protect the butterflies from both collectors and well-meaning lookiloos who might otherwise come out to photograph the Poweshieks and, inadvertently, grind the caterpillars into the damp soil. It’s a wet place, full of matted paths that twine through clots of muddy grasses and waving wildflowers. The only noises are grasshoppers, massasauga rattlesnakes and the wind.
The conditions there weren’t perfect for Poweshieks on the warm afternoon in July 2022, when Nordmeyer took me along on his hunt. Clouds were passing overhead, blotting out the sunshine butterflies love, and the breeze was up, maybe enough to make a small, winged creature cling to a flower as if it were a port in a storm. But there were other butterflies about. Movement in the grass stirred mulberry wing skippers and dorcas coppers. They flew into the air, where a hopeful journalist repeatedly mistook them for Poweshieks.
In mud-caked boots, we walked through areas Nordemeyer and his team called Poweshiek Country and Poweshiek City — named less than a decade ago to reflect their relative skipperling populations. But now both felt like ghost towns. Nordmeyer, who has been deeply involved in efforts to boost wild Poweshiek populations in Michigan, wasn’t worried at first. He’d come to this place regularly since 2012 and he figured that maybe it was just a little early in the season. It had been a cold spring. Maybe the wild butterflies were delayed in emerging from their cocoons. Or maybe the day was just bad. It seemed hard to believe they were gone entirely.
But that’s the same hope researchers have been clinging to since the species started vanishing, more than 20 years ago. Back then, Robert Dana couldn’t believe it, either, when he first started hearing that Poweshieks were going missing on the Minnesota prairies. It was the scientific equivalent of rumors. A small survey here. A set of anecdotal reports from hobbyist bug lovers there. Dana, then an entomologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, didn’t buy it. It was like somebody saying the grass was gone. From the first time he’d ever seen a prairie as a graduate student, Poweshieks had been there. It wasn’t the biggest butterfly, or the showiest. It was humble but distinct. Beautiful in its own quiet way. A real Upper Midwesterner of an insect.
Dana believed the Poweshieks must be OK in the early 2000s for the same reasons Nordmeyer hoped they’re going to be now: It’s hard to imagine a world without them. The Poweshieks once defined the Northern prairies, with a range that stretched down from Manitoba, across both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and even south into Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. The butterfly’s name even comes from a county in Iowa and, by extension, from an early 19th century chief of the Meskwaki people.
And while the years between Dana’s search and Nordmeyer’s have seen a massive retreat of Poweshiek territory, it remains difficult to know if any single bad year for the species is truly a step on the road to extinction. Poweshieks are small butterflies, compact and fast — they don’t really fly so much as manically hop across the landscape from flower to flower, a dark blur just above the top of the grass. They do not travel long distances in the single year that makes up an individual’s lifetime. The tiny caterpillars, nearly invisible on a bending stem, stay within a few centimeters of where they hatch, waiting out the winter beneath the snow. A typical flight for an adult is only a few meters at a time, and it may not leave an area bigger than a square mile before it dies.
Their short lives and small individual home ranges mean that local populations have always fluctuated a lot from year to year, and it’s easy to lose a population in one small, specific location while a different population flourishes nearby. This is what Dana assumed was actually going on in Minnesota back in the early 2000s. People who were only looking in one place, one year, were just mistaking these local fluctuations for actual disappearances, he told himself.
Yet Dana found a hollow stillness everywhere he went, like a room grown suddenly too silent. Across more than 50 locations, his 2006 search turned up exactly one butterfly. As the horror of what he was witnessing began to truly set in, he clung to that butterfly as a beacon. “I guess I felt some kind of relief that maybe it was still hanging on, maybe it was going to recover,” Dana said. It was the last Poweshiek he’d ever see in the wild.
Nearly 20 years later in Michigan, Nordmeyer would come up with similarly grim statistics. There were no Poweshieks in Poweshiek City. There were almost no Poweshieks anywhere. After I left the prairie patches, Nordmeyer stayed on, and it became clear the absence wasn’t just a product of bad timing. But, like Dana before him, Nordmeyer wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he contacted the federal officials in charge of endangered species management and came to an agreement — whatever few wild Poweshieks he found would be taken into captivity and mated with the butterflies he had raised by hand.
“Fish and Wildlife [Service] pretty much decided, ‘No, we think these things are safer with you guys than they are in the wild,’” Nordmeyer said.
Today, Poweshiek skipperlings are ferried to adulthood in the backseat of a Subaru Outback. The ride from the Minnesota Zoo to Michigan is the culmination of their new, human-directed life cycle. They make the journey still wrapped in their cocoons, no longer caterpillars but not quite yet butterflies, each one attached to a small tuft of prairie dropseed growing from a plastic pot and wrapped in a protective tower of pantyhose-covered metal framing. Nordmeyer drives the Poweshieks to Michigan, where he sets up the pots like a miniature city of beige condominiums inside a collapsible picnic shelter on site. He calls it the “Poweshiek Party Tent.”
As each cocoon opens, the butterfly that emerges is released into the wild. Two or three at a time, Nordmeyer marks their wings with an identifying dot from a colored Sharpie, loads them into test tubes and carries them out onto the prairie in a messenger bag. He lowers them carefully by the bristly end of a paintbrush onto the waiting petals of a black-eyed Susan, their favorite flower. Over the course of a couple of weeks in 2022, Nordmeyer and his colleagues released 102 butterflies and searched the grasses for pregnant females and already laid eggs to carry back to the zoo. The caterpillars that later hatched from those eggs went on to eat their way through their own potted prairie dropseeds. In the summer, they were loaded into special cooling boxes that can mimic the overnight temperature drops that no longer happen reliably in this part of the country. As the seasons turned, humans plucked the fat babies from the plants and packed them into plastic cups filled with clay. The cups are covered with paper towels and stored in a freezer, the analogue of a caterpillar buried beneath a thick snowpack. In the spring, they’ll go back on a dropseed, spin a cocoon and wait for their cross-country road trip in that Subaru — the new year’s butterfly crop.
Nordmeyer isn’t the only one working to save the Poweshiek. At the John Ball Zoo in Michigan, scientists have figured out how to breed Poweshieks right there in captivity, no need to drop them off in a field so they can find dates. In Manitoba, researchers are monitoring Poweshiek numbers and working to both figure out what kinds of habitats the butterflies prefer, and how to keep those habitats healthy and safe.
Twenty years ago, when Dana first called Richard Westwood, a professor of biology at the University of Winnipeg, and asked him if he’d noticed anything odd about the Poweshieks in his area, Westwood’s response was “I don’t know. They’re always around right? We don’t really pay attention.” Today, they are a species Westwood and dozens of other scientists have spent years paying intense attention to.
The Poweshieks’ transition from a species humans neglected to one whose life is now literally in our hands is a reflection of how we’ve approached insects, as a whole. For every charismatic megafauna gracing the cover of a magazine, there are literal armfuls of smaller creatures fading quietly into the night. Insects are threatened at a rate far exceeding that of mammals, birds and reptiles, with as much as 40 percent of all insect species potentially facing extinction in the next few decades. Butterflies are one of the most affected groups, but they weren’t a major focus of conservation science until recently. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the agency that evaluates the conservation status of species and helps determine which are threatened, has assessed the risks posed to 67 percent of vertebrate species but only 2 percent of invertebrates, as of 2019.
Saving those species is an exercise in just how much control we can take over nature before we’re not only preserving it, but molding it. The people working to save the Poweshiek know they’re walking that tightrope. And they also know it’s not something that we have enough resources to do for every species that’s in danger of extinction. Choices will have to be made.
That reality represents a big shift in the way both science and policy have thought about animal conservation, said Daniel Rohlf, a professor of wildlife law at Lewis & Clark Law School. There’s a can-do attitude that’s embedded into the law and regulations that govern how species are managed. The Endangered Species Act defines the very concept of “conservation” as doing whatever is necessary to ensure every listed species no longer needs the ESA. “The overwhelming attitude was, ‘Humans have kind of messed this up but we can fix it,’” Rohlf said. Species become endangered, but then humans come in, identify what went wrong, correct the problem, and help the species rebuild until eventually it stops needing our intervention.
There have definitely been some species for which that understanding of the world has worked. Melinda Morgan, director of the sustainability studies program at the University of New Mexico, pointed to the success we’ve had in saving the peregrine falcon. “Ban DDT and you’re great. Done,” she said, referring to the once-common, bird-killing pesticide. But the reality is that most endangered animals will not be large and iconic, with an easily identified threat that can be quickly eliminated with one weird trick, like in a clickbait ad. Most are insects, small and hard to find, easier to accidentally kill without thinking about it than to find and rescue. Most are suffering from a tangle of intertwined problems. For the Poweshiek, there are pesticides we won’t stop using, land we won’t stop developing and climate that won’t stop changing. If you resuscitate the species in a zoo, it may or may not have a wild habitat to return to. Most endangered animals are not the peregrine falcon. Most endangered animals are a mess.
“There’s a level of overwhelm that comes with that,” Morgan said. “There’s a level of despair.” What do you do when a species you thought was fine turns out to be actually teetering on the brink of death? What do you do when you have to decide which species you’ll focus your grants and labs and manpower on, knowing there are others in just as dire straits? What do you do when you have basically become a minor deity to a species of butterfly that relies on you to guide its life across generations — and the damn thing won’t be fruitful and multiply?
This is the point where Morgan suggested I speak to a Buddhist philosopher.
Three years ago, researchers from the Minnesota Zoo took one of the Poweshieks they’d painstakingly raised from birth, released it onto the Michigan prairie, and watched in frustration as a mint-green dragonfly, the size of a human palm, dropped out of the sky … and ate it.
There are no guarantees in nature. Not even when everything is working the way it’s supposed to — maybe especially not then. The dragonfly, a common pondhawk, was also native to those swampy grasslands. “It sort of forced us to stop and think,” Nordmeyer said. “That's also a natural species, right? This is part of the natural order of things then, too.”
This Far Side cartoon of a moment is where the hard science of keeping a species alive runs smack into philosophy. That’s where Joanna Macy comes in. Macy is a 93-year-old environmental activist and Buddhist scholar whose work focuses specifically on the kinds of challenges scientists face when they have to decide how far they’re willing to go to conserve a species like the Poweshiek skipperling. Her writing is dedicated to staring straight down the barrel of environmental failure and coming away with a heart that’s larger, rather than one that’s been blasted to bits.
How do you do that? Well, consider the idea that the world is a bit like a tomato. In “Active Hope,” a 2012 book Macy wrote with psychologist Dr. Chris Johnstone, the tomato helps illustrate what human intervention in nature can often look like. If you squeeze a tomato too much, too hard — when humans alter our environment in unsustainable ways — we destroy it. You can’t unsqueeze a tomato, just like you can’t unmush the world we’ve damaged. If the chances of fixing the problem aren’t very high, then why not just stop trying to help altogether?
But the analogy doesn’t end with the world destroyed in a pasta-sauce apocalypse. Instead, Johnstone told me, every collapse carries the seeds of a future renewal. What grows will be a different tomato. You can’t get the old one back. But something can grow — if we take the seeds and plant them.
And that’s … it. That’s the message. Somehow, that’s supposed to be uplifting? Buck up, little buttercup, and keep trying? It’s okay if that’s not enough for you. It wasn’t enough for me. But then I realized that, whether the scientists I was interviewing knew about Macy and Johnstone’s work or not, they had already come to rely on this perspective for their own sanity. They weren’t giving up because hope, for them, wasn’t dependent on the Poweshieks’ odds of survival. Instead, hope was an action to take. They wanted something good to happen, so they tried to make it so.
That’s why they could accept the risk of Poweshieks being eaten by natural predators — their efforts don’t need to be successful to be worthwhile. If the Michigan summer truly ended without any Poweshiek caterpillars clinging to the drying grasses — if the species is truly gone in the U.S. outside of captivity — it’s all still been worth it, said Anna Monfils, a professor of biology at Central Michigan University. That’s in part because the struggle is bigger than those prairie fens, and bigger than the Poweshieks. If the skipperlings died there this year, but live on in zoos and in Canada, maybe that can teach us something about what’s happening in this specific ecosystem and how it might affect the other animals that live there — the other butterflies, the dragonflies that eat them, or even the rattlesnakes hidden under the grass. “No loss is good,” she said. “But learning from that process is a better outcome than not learning.”
It matters that researchers can breed Poweshieks in captivity now, for example — not just for the Poweshieks, but for butterflies on the other side of the world who might benefit from the same techniques. And, as multiple scientists pointed out, the only way to really guarantee failure is to stop.
Macy and Johnstone describe this as radical uncertainty, the realization that “we don’t know if this will work” goes both ways. It could mean a world where the only Poweshieks are stiff and pinned to cardboard, under glass, a memorial to themselves. But uncertainty can also mean scientists’ intervention works, putting the species in a good position to be successfully reintroduced somewhere else. It could mean a young scientist comes along who figures out how to ensure the prairies the Poweshieks once loved are safe for them again. It could mean, as Nordmeyer hoped, that we find “a new pocket of these butterflies that we didn't even know was in someone's backyard.” It isn’t naive to think things might not be as bad as they seem. And that interpretation provides a reason to do the work.
This winter, the community of scientists who have taken on that work will talk about the next steps to take with the Poweshiek now that the Michigan prairie fens are no longer a place the butterfly seems to thrive. Something will change. What that is, nobody knows yet. It’s possible they’ll stop trying to release Poweshieks in Michigan at all, and instead focus on breeding for a few years, working up the captive population so it’s large enough to try reintroduction at a different site. But it’s unlikely this is the end. There’s still too much to hope for.
“When you get us all together in the room we can be extremely positive,” Westwood said. “It’s depressing. But I don’t see anybody here giving up. We won’t give up until it’s give-up time.”
Because that’s the other thing that seemed truly important to these scientists: the fact that others were there, seeing the things they saw, carrying the burden with them. The ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that "one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." But that’s not how these researchers live. They’re part of a community that crosses borders and has spent years helping a tiny creature rebuild its own community. They may not succeed. But they won’t have been alone. And maybe that, by itself, can heal some wounds.