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Butterfly Pavilion in Mongolia: Parnassius Butterfly Conservation

Butterfly Pavilion in Mongolia: Parnassius Butterfly Conservation

By Rich Reading, Director of Science and Conservation at Butterfly Pavilion

The yaks literally ran down to the river to drink and frolic, forcing us to delay our trip until they finished, allowing us to finally ford the cool waters of the Terelj River in our Toyota Land Cruiser. We moved all electronics off the floor board as we drove through the river and then up into the mountains. Vast fields of wildflowers and, we hoped, Apollo Butterflies (Parnassius apollo) awaited us. The mountains of Terelj National Park in Mongolia contain a mix of coniferous forest and steppe grasslands. Apollo Butterflies seem to particularly like foraging where these 2 great biomes meet. Yet, we really know little about these threatened, yet gorgeous butterflies. I’ve come to Mongolia to work with our Mongolian colleagues Gantigmaa and Jigmidmaa from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in the hopes of changing that by starting a conservation research project on the Parnassius genus (many of you may recall that Jigmidmaa, or Jige, visited Butterfly Pavilion last year when she was still a graduate student).

Mongolia hosts a diverse array of Parnassius butterflies, 5 species of which the country lists as Threatened species, likely due to the negative impacts of hay harvesting, over-grazing, and over-collecting by zealous butterfly lovers from overseas. This summer, with generous support from the Loewy Family Foundation, we hoped to get an idea of some of the habitats that Parnassius butterflies use and, if possible, get a sense of population sizes. If we can garner additional funding, we hope to return in future years to collect more data and begin to cobble together a conservation plan to ensure a future for these charismatic animals.

Terelj was the second of 3 sites we visited.  The first site, Mugunmorit, included a relatively small area that aflutter with Apollo and Nomion (Parnassius nomion – a non-threatened congener) Butterflies, which we captured and marked using fine-tipped felt pens. Over 2 days, by marking and recapturing butterflies, we can get an estimate of the population size using the ratio of marked to unmarked animals caught on subsequent days. Swarms of biting and non-biting flies swirled around us during daylight hours in Mugunmorit, but the butterflies, flowers, and scenery made up for the discomfort.  What a place!  The other 2 sites (Terelj and Bat Sumber) supported very few Apollo Butterflies, but larger numbers of Nomion Butterflies.  Yet, those sites lacked the flies and held, if anything, even more wild flowers, rendering them stunningly beautiful.

The other threatened Parnassius butterflies live in other parts of Mongolia. We hope to begin adding some of those species to our work in future years. Indeed, our plans in 2019 include several trips to Mongolia by BP staff to gather data on Parnassius butterfly population sizes and trends, habitat associations, host plants, and life histories. We will target at least 3 species of threatened species next year: Apollo, Eversmann’s (P. eversmanni), and Stubbendorf’s (P. stubbendorfi) Butterflies. As we begin to understand the biology, ecology, and threats better, we will begin in develop and implement conservation management activities in an effort to ensure that future generations can get the same thrill from seeing these gorgeous animals that I experience each time I travel into their habitat in Mongolia.


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