Bay skipper  Euphyes bayensis
ESA status: none

Bay Skipper Photo

Though we think we have discovered most of the animals we share our planet with, the insect world in particular is an unending source of surprises. The bay skipper, an extremely rare butterfly, was only discovered in 1989, by lepidopterist John Shuey. He named the newly discovered butterfly after Bay St. Louis, the location where he determined it was a new species. This dusky orange and brown butterfly is, to paraphrase Shuey, another jewel in the collection of flora and fauna found only on the Gulf Coast. The bay skipper lends a touch of color to marshes, where it finds the sawgrass, reeds, and bulrush it depends on as larval host plants. Adults feed on a variety of both native and exotic flowering plants, including goldenrod, Brazilian vervain, and frog fruit.

This little-known butterfly and its habitat are on the front lines of increasingly severe storms that are devastating the Gulf Coast, likely as a consequence of human-induced climate change. The bay skipper was a victim of Hurricane Katrina – the entire Bay St. Louis population vanished in the storm and has not returned. In a recent survey, no Bay skippers were found there or in former habitat on the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Seven new locations have been identified, two in Texas and five in Louisiana – good news, but it is enough to justify the U. S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision to deny the species protection under the Endangered Species Act?

Coastal wetlands are home to rich biodiversity and also buffer the storms that sweep in from the sea, protecting inland habitat (including human dwellings) from the worst impacts of severe weather. But the important role of these buffer zones has often gone unacknowledged, and coastal wetlands have been drained and built over by development projects, the fate of much of the skipper’s habitat in Mississippi. Louisiana contains the largest estuarine marsh in the United States, but is also experiencing the highest rate of wetland loss in the country. If bold, international action is not taken to halt climate change, increasingly severe storms and sea level rise will likely further inundate these unique coastal areas, forever changing the face of the Gulf Coast.

photo credit: © Janet Rathjen