After twenty years of searching, a biologist finds the first swamp elf butterfly in Vermont: VTDigger

About the size of a penny, a swamp elf, wings folded over its body, sips nectar among the petals of a rhodora flower. Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer

On May 19, biologist Bryan Pfeiffer visited an undiscovered swamp in northern Vermont with the same goal he’s had for the past 21 years: to confirm that the state is home to the elusive swamp elf, a butterfly about the size of a dime.

After wandering around for an hour, he saw a small brown creature fluttering down from the branches of a waist-high black spruce, the tree on which the swamp elf depends for his survival. He raised the binoculars to confirm his discovery of him.

I’m not inclined to talk to butterflies in swamps, Pfeiffer said with a laugh. But I said, I’ve been looking for you for a long time.

Then the butterfly took off. Pfeiffer spent another two hours tracking down others, and returned to the swamp on other days, photographing them so his colleagues, state scientists, and the public would have incontrovertible evidence.

Pfeiffer is aware that, to the untrained eye, the creature doesn’t appear as special or beautiful as, say, a monarch butterfly, one of the world’s most studied insects.

Let’s be honest, he said. For most people, this is by no means a butterfly with charisma. It’s a small brown butterfly. So why would anyone care about a little brown butterfly?

Bryan Pfeiffer. Photo courtesy of Bryan Pfeiffer

For Pfeiffer, his decades-long odyssey to find the creature has led him to come to terms with his own life’s aging process, beauty and the value of moving slowly. He said the bug makes his heart race and his knees go weak.

For one thing, it’s extremely hard to find, even for Pfeiffer, a consultant biologist Governor Phil Scott appointed to the Vermont Endangered Species Committee, Maine government officials recruited to photograph rare butterflies, and who teaches graduate students at the Vermont Endangered Species Committee. University of Vermont. Naturalistic program in the field.

Swamp elves are among the smallest butterflies on the continent and only take flight from mid-May until early June, greatly narrowing the window of time in which they can be found. Mostly they sit on the boughs of black fir trees, occasionally descending to get nectar from the season’s flowers.

Adding to the challenge is the remoteness of the marshes, which can be unattractive landscapes even for nature lovers.

You usually can’t drive to a swamp, so you have to go on a bush tour in most swamps in Vermont. Getting there is tough, and then depending on the swamp and the time of year, black flies and mosquitoes can be big obstacles, she said. This butterfly often flies around at the height of the biting insect season.

But swamp challenges were no object for Pfeiffer. She found herself at home there, and was content to spend spring weeks of the last twenty years wandering through the black spruce groves.

He knew of swamp elf populations in some of the surrounding states and Canadian provinces, and he knew that Vermont has enough black spruce trees to support them, so he decided to find this butterfly in Vermont or die trying.

The research taught him about the creature’s habitat, how it flies, and how it differs from other small brown butterflies and moths. One benefit he credits to being a 65-year-old field biologist is slowing down learning to be more aware and present.

I like to think that skill and experience and age and 21 years of research and learning count for something, he said.

For thoughtful scientists and conservationists, the discovery means something else.

“Discovering the swamp in Vermont is a testament to our ongoing commitment to land conservation and biodiversity,” said Julie Moore, Vermont secretary of natural resources. “When we protect and restore a diversity of habitats, we ensure a thriving future for both familiar and elusive Vermont wildlife.”

Although Pfeiffer declined to name the location in the swamp where he found the swamp elf, he said it was on protected, state-owned land.

This past year, Moore said, has seen multiple discoveries of species with conservation interests on lands conserved and managed by the Natural Resources Agency, including lands prioritized by the agency’s planning tool, Vermont Conservation Design.

When we protect the most important natural features of our landscape, we protect all the pieces that make up an entire ecosystem, Moore said, from the smallest butterfly to the largest mammals, from common trees to rare plants and everything in between.

Scientists aren’t the only nature-curious people who can contribute to Vermont knowledge and species discovery. Pfeiffer began searching for the swamp elf in 2002, during the first phase of the Vermont Butterfly Atlas. Phase two is underway now, from 2023 to 2027, and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies is inviting Vermonters to get involved. Volunteers need only a camera and the closest section of green space.

“When it comes to discovering biodiversity, many of us think of distant exotic places,” said Kent McFarland, who edits the butterfly atlas for the center. “But there’s a lot to be found here in our backyards.”

The butterfly atlas is part of a larger project, called the Vermont Atlas of Life, intended to document biodiversity in Vermont.

Now that I’ve found this butterfly in Vermont, we in Vermont join a handful of states and provinces with the responsibility of making sure it doesn’t go extinct, Pfeiffer said. It’s a solemn task, even for a small brown butterfly that no one will see.

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