Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Uncompahgre Fritillary

I recently read Halfway to Heaven by Mark Obmascik. It is about a balding, overweight dad trying to achieve a mid-life goal. Not that I would know anything about that. I would consider myself closer to bald than balding. And although Obmascik refers to himself as overweight many times, my guess is that the photo on the cover flap was taken after he achieved his goal - of climbing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot mountains within one year. That makes my goal of becoming rich and famous seem easy!

As Obmascik progresses - some climbs easy, some hard, some exposing his insanity - he tells stories about himself and the mountains. One of my favorite stories was about the Uncompahgre Fritillary. This small, orange and brown butterfly was named after Uncompahgre Peak, where it was first discovered by modern scientists in 1978.

The Uncompahgre Fritillary has one the smallest ranges of any North American butterfly. It is found only on northeast-facing slopes of the San Juan Mountain range in Colorado, at elevations above 12,500 feet, near the snow willow plants that their caterpillars eat. It is an endangered species, with only 11 known populations containing a total of a few thousand individuals.

Obmascik doesn’t admit to actually seeing any of these rare insects himself, only to coming across a grad student who was out looking for them. They were both making a hasty retreat from a violent thunderstorm on Redcloud Peak, home of the largest population of Uncompahgres. The grad student was carrying some type of recording or communication device with a tall metal antenna, so Obmascik was happy to have him draw the lighting away from him.

The Uncompahgre is believed to be a holdout from the last Ice Age, when they and their favored habitat were much more abundant than today. As the glaciers retreated, the butterfly's range shrunk and moved upward in elevation. Global warming is one of the many stresses affecting this butterfly's survival. At this point, they only have about 2000 ft more to move up before they run out of mountain. Let's hope that this creature which has survived since the Ice Age, and was only discovered in 1978, does not get forced into extinction.

Sorry for the blurry photo, that's the best one I could find in the public domain (from the US Fish & Wildlife Service).


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