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Saving Coastal Dunes, One Bug at a Time

Did you ever think bugs could save a beach? Well, they can!

By Sara Stevens, Butterfly Pavilion Aquarist

Last year Butterfly Pavilion started helping the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – the government agency responsible for administering public lands – in Eureka, California. California is home to a huge variety of different ecosystems and animals. One of these ecosystems, the coastal dunes, has been the focus of conservation through restoration efforts.

Helping save a beach one insect at a time

In the early 1900’s developers used a grass, called European beach grass to help stabilize the ever-shifting sand dunes so they could build closer to ocean. At the time, it seemed like a great idea. But soon the beach grass got out of control and took over, blanketing the coast in a sea of invasive plants! It changed more than the landscape; it also impacted the animals that called these dunes home.

Over the years the BLM made a decision to restore the dunes. This required hundreds of volunteers removing millions of plants year after year in order to successfully return the dunes back to their naturally-diverse state. As the native plants have returned so have the animals, including threatened and endangered species!

One such species is the Western snowy plover. This small shore bird was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Over the years, the species has struggled to find suitable breeding grounds due to human disturbances and invasive beach grass. Much of the restoration work to return the coastal dunes to their original habitat has been made in an effort to help these birds.

As with many conservation projects, some members of the community have raised concerns about the impact of removing the grasses. Why would you get rid of the lush grass and replace it with scrubby native plants? The main answer: diversity!

In order to make sure this restoration is truly having a positive impact on the environment, the BLM agreed to bring in a team of experts to decide which was better: restored or unrestored dunes.

That’s where Butterfly Pavilion joins the story! Our research team is combining years of invertebrate and conservation experience to travel to Eureka, CA and measure the animals all along these dunes in order to determine which is healthier!

Why are invertebrates so important when it comes to a healthy ecosystem? Invertebrates are considered indicator species. This means that scientists can survey the number and types of invertebrates in an area and it will indicate if that ecosystem is healthy or not. This type of conservation work is so important because it can help local governments have a better understanding of how to make their cities healthier for the people who live there!

Think of it this way, we have two different houses each with food in their kitchen. The first option is filled to the brim with ramen cups. While that may keep a person fed, there isn’t a lot of variety. Our second kitchen has a mixture of vegetables, meats, fruits, pasta, and maybe the occasional cookie. This kitchen has a larger, more diverse assortment of food.

Which kitchen do you think is healthier? The kitchen with more options or less?

Just like different food groups have an important role to play in your body’s health, every bug has an important role to play in the health of its ecosystem. The more species of native plants and animals we have, the healthier the environment. By measuring the amount of invertebrates (like beetles, spiders, butterflies, and bees) we can look at the numbers and let the BLM know which dunes are healthiest!

This is the first year of our study and it may take up to 5 years to complete. Our first trip in November focused on making sure our surveying methodologies could handle the coastal weather conditions. We begin our first invertebrate collection this coming week from April 10-16. We look forward to letting you know more about our current and future research projects on a local, national, and international scale!

About Butterfly Pavilion:
Founded in July 1995 and accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Butterfly Pavilion is the world’s only stand-alone, AZA-accredited invertebrate zoo, occupying a 30,000-square foot facility on an 11-acre campus provided by the City of Westminster, Colorado. Butterfly Pavilion’s mission is to foster an appreciation of invertebrates by educating the public about the need to protect and care for threatened habitats globally, while conducting research for solutions in invertebrate conservation. Learn more at www.butterflies.org.

# # #

Media Contacts:
Kristen Petitt Stewart, kstewart@butterflies.org or 970-389-1561
Russ Pecoraro, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, rpecoraro@butterflies.org or 720.375.9984

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