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Butterflies and Bombs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The St. Francis’ Satyr is small, brown, and fabulously rare. Once found across North Carolinian sedge meadows, the federally endangered butterfly is now restricted to a few square miles. Its historical habitats, openings maintained by beaver dams and lightning fires, are increasingly threatened by intensive agriculture. The only place that currently harbors the species is closed to the public for reasons of national security.

Ecologist Nick Haddad has been visiting Fort Bragg military base in central North Carolina for ten years with net, notebook, and sharpie in hand. He has special permission to work in the bomb ranges, where hot fires from artillery rounds scorch the earth – much like lightning would – allowing sedge meadows and their resident butterflies to persist. An explosive ordinance disposal expert must accompany them on each trip. Nick laughs: “The expert will point out a 40 mm shell while I watch butterflies. We make a good team.”

Having myself only seen a few flat line drawings of the St. Francis’ Satyr, I ask Nick to describe it. “It has a subtle beauty,” he says, “a background of brown intersected by red-orange stripes and rows of silver-blue eyespots. Oh, and it is the slowest, most sedentary butterfly I’ve ever seen. Its favorite activity is just sitting there.”

While we tend to think of butterflies as bright flyers – most have evolved to forage on flowers in open grasslands – Satyrs are part of a small group that has evolved to live in places surrounded by forest. Fittingly, they are named after the Satyrs of Greek myth, roguish and subversive companions to Pan and Dionysus that roamed the woods playing their pipes. With inconspicuous behaviors, tiny caterpillars, and a three day adult lifespan, they can be a frustrating species to work with. After hundreds of hours of searching, last summer Nick’s team finally found one caterpillar in the field, by accident, when a student dropped his sunglasses next to an inhabited sedge.

“Something interesting happens in the field almost every day,” Nick says, “whether that’s soldiers dropping from the sky, Black Hawk helicopters flying low over the field site, or a truck towing a howitzer. I tell my students that they’re acclimated to research when they can tell the difference between thunder and bombs dropping.”

The St. Francis’ Satyr monitoring project is part of a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Energy that funds ecological field research on military lands, everything from deep sea mapping of sperm whales to climate change assessment in Alaskan boreal forests. With over three hundred installations that cover nearly thirty million acres, the DOD’s ecological resources are vast. And because the DOD restricts access to large tracts of land, many installations protect unique habitats. Fort Bragg, for example, encompasses much of the intact longleaf pine savannah in the South. On the other coast, Camp Pendleton spans sixteen miles of undeveloped Californian shoreline and sustains over 1250 species, eighteen of them threatened or endangered.

The U.S. military and ecological research might seem an odd match, but their histories are deeply entwined. During the nineteenth century many biological expeditions were motivated by military interests and funded by the federal government. Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition across the United States was for the express purpose of documenting plants, animals, and other resources that could be exploited commercially. During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy employed botanists to survey western Pacific islands. Such federal support of ecological research continued into the twentieth century, skyrocketing after World War II when “radioecology” became a centerpiece of the U.S. government’s Atoms for Peace program.

Connections between ecological research and the U.S. military remain strong. For example, the National Park Service is currently collaborating with the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the U.S. Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Russian research institutes to develop a vaccine for brucellosis, an infectious disease that affects humans, livestock, and bison in the Yellowstone area. Brucella abortus, the bacterium that causes brucellosis, was identified as a potential biological weapon during the Cold War. In response, the former Soviet Union invested heavily in studying the disease.

What would an ecology of war look like? War, by definition, brings disturbance and rapid change. While rapid change often favors weedy species – species that, because of their close associations with humans, we tend to devalue – on occasion it can favor species we value. This observation has led biologist Thor Hanson and colleagues to contend that in some cases the weakening of sociopolitical frameworks during wartime can “confer ecological benefits through altered settlement patterns and reduced resource exploitation”; that war can be a “conservation opportunity” when militarization restricts human activity. There are examples of species that have rebounded with war. One such species is the European plaice, a flat fish whose numbers skyrocketed during WWI because of reduced commercial fishing. Other biologists have praised areas abandoned during insurgent activity – such as the Hukawng Valley tiger reserve in Myanmar, the Maquenque National Wildlife Refuge in Costa Rica, and Korea’s DMZ – as hotspots of biodiversity. Biological refugia created with land mines, razor-wire fencing, and forced emigration.

But the argument that war is good for biodiversity is a bleak one. It suggests that humans are unable to occupy the same spaces as other species. There are currently twenty-nine armed conflicts occurring, or more, or less, depending on who is counting, and war preparation is estimated to occupy nine million square miles. Must biodiversity conservation come through human suffering? In taking the bomb field as nature’s salvation, don’t we assert our inability to share the world?

Recently a number of biologists have called for a more hopeful ecology, an ecology of “novel ecosystems” or “anthromes.” Unlike traditional geographical frameworks like biomes, these new frameworks emphasize that humans and other species do coexist, sometimes successfully. Indeed, over 75% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface has been impacted by human action. Humans are moving more earth and producing more reactive nitrogen than all other terrestrial processes combined – not to mention global extinctions and climate change. Humans must therefore count as a component of ecosystems – an important component of ecosystems, these biologists contend.

To many it will seem obvious that humans are part of their environment, but ecologists have historically ignored humans in their studies. This is changing. Conservationists are also taking heed. Many things that humans do can promote biodiversity – conservation, after all, is a human action.

The St. Francis’ Satyr is a living juxtaposition of butterflies and bombs that challenges the borders we take for granted between innocence and corruption, nature and culture. Though butterflies might symbolize peace and happiness, metamorphosis and rebirth, the St. Francis’ Satyr can only do so in bomb fields. They are a muddled metaphor, a humanized wildness.

We say that we understand ecosystems: What’s the difference between thunder and bombs dropping?

Image: Melissa McGaw

 

Laura Jane Martin About the Author: Laura Jane Martin is a poet, essayist, and NSF graduate fellow at Cornell University, where she studies the ecology and evolution of wetland plants. She has a BS in Biophysics from Brown University. Find more of her work at ljanemartin.com. Follow on Twitter @Laura_J_Martin.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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