Formerly one of the most common butterflies in southern California, the Quino Checkerspot now inhabits only six areas in southwestern Riverside and southern San Diego counties (Two were found in central San Diego County: San Vicente and Alpine. Four were found in South San Vicente,
Sycamore Canyon, Fanita Ranch, and North East Miramar) and four in Baja. Of these, all but three populations contained fewer than five individual butterflies in 2000. It has not been seen in Orange County, Los Angeles
County, or coastal San Diego County for nearly 30 years and is no longer in San Bernardino County as well. Wildfires in Southern California in 2003 burned 19 percent of the Quino Checkerspot’s critical habitat and eliminated 27 percent of its known occurrences.
Conservationists and biodiversity experts have spent years trying to save the butterfly, which has been endangered since 1997. Once there were millions of these distinctive black, brown and white butterflies near San Diego, which would migrate as adult butterflies from the Santa Monica
Mountains to Baja California. But the population crashed and conservationists have been trying to save them and bring them back
But there is some good news. The exceedingly rare butterfly returned to the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge this past spring. Biologists had placed nearly 600 butterfly larvae in specially constructed pods over the winter. The San Diego Zoo and USFWS staff collaborated to create a release pod that would provide safety for the larvae, protect them from predators and allow them to leave when environmental cues signal them to “break” diapause and begin feeding again. Staff settled on using a spherical mesh seed feeder,
with a peat moss container inside, wired shut to provide additional
protection. The orbs were painted to blend into the environment, and are capped off with a plastic “rain jacket” to make sure the peat moss container and larvae don’t get too wet. Each release pod is designed to hold several larvae—ranging from 15 to 28 individuals—and they are grouped with other larvae from the same clutch of eggs laid by an adult female Quino checkerspot butterfly. This ingenious pod did it’s duty, and nature took its course: when the area was checked later, more than 35 Quino Checkerspot butterflies were flitting about .
The Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas (=Occidryas) editha quino, has about a 1 inch wingspan and is checkered with dark brown, reddish, and yellowish spots. Adult Quino Checkerspot butterflies live from four to eight weeks. There is typically one generation of adults per year, with a 4 to 6 week flight period beginning from late January to early March and continuing as late as early May, depending on weather conditions. Females are usually mated on the day they emerge from pupae, and lay one or two egg clusters per day
for most of their adult life. Female Quino deposit eggs on plants located in full sun, preferably surrounded by bare ground or sparse, low vegetation. They do not lay eggs on plants shaded through the midday hours (1100 to 1400) or embedded in taller vegetation probably because of the high temperature requirements of their larvae. In optimum conditions, the eggs hatch in about 10 days and the larvae begin to feed immediately.
The larvae may use either dwarf plantain (Plantago erecta) or Indian paintbrush (Castilleja exserta spp. exerta; also called purple owl’s clover), both of which may be common in meadows and upland sage scrub/chaparral habitat. These plants are annuals which die back in the summer. The butterfly larvae then seek shelter among leaf litter and become dormant. Fall and winter rains spark the germination of the host plant, which in turn causes the larvae to come out of dormancy. These butterflies can spend several years in a dormant period, briefly breaking and reentering dormancy over and over before reaching maturity, depending largely on rain patterns.
One of the main reasons the Quino is endangered is primarily because habitat is being damaged, fragmented, and destroyed by human activities. Urban development, grazing, and invasion of nonnative plants, loss of habitat and landscape connectivity, invasion by nonnative plants, off-road vehicle activity, grazing, enhanced soil nitrogen, and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration are the predominant threats.
While researching this butterfly for this article, it was found that there is a great deal on the internet about the Quino Checkerboard Butterfly and the proposed wall along the border in southern U.S. states. It is alleged the border wall will prove especially difficult for the butterfly’s migration to Baja every year. It won’t be able to fly up and over it. While some butterflies can fly high, to the Quino Checkerspot butterfly 30 feet may as well be the Himalayas. The Quino Checkerspot tends to avoid flying over objects taller than six to eight feet.