The Minnesota Zoo works around the world to save wildlife. Here in Minnesota, we have had an exciting summer and fall, helping our prairie wildlife like endangered prairie butterflies.

Our Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program expanded the world’s only breeding program for the US Threatened/Minnesota Endangered Dakota skipper. This once-widespread Minnesota-native butterfly has disappeared from about 75% of its global range, including most of the prairies in our state where it historically occurred.  We successfully raised another full annual generation at the Zoo, and managed to breed 17 pairs of butterflies in our care. In fact, the female photographed by National Geographic’s Joel Sartore for his Photo Ark project, is now a grandmother! We have been busy caring for her grand-offspring and hundreds more new caterpillars as we continue to expand the world’s only conservation population for this imperiled species. These individuals are forming a foundation for an exciting future re-introduction effort to reestablish populations of this Minnesota prairie butterfly!

Along with many partners, we are also studying why populations of these and many other butterflies are declining. We surveyed butterflies at more than a dozen prairies in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota this summer, and recorded habitat conditions. Partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we collected a second year of samples from four prairies to study the possible exposure of prairie butterflies to insecticides.

Now, with autumn underway, we are preparing the Dakota skipper caterpillars for their long winter slumber. Unlike Monarch butterflies that migrate to warmer weather during winter months, this hardy Minnesotan spends winter as a caterpillar buried under prairie snows in a shelter it builds with silk and grasses. Most of the caterpillars in our care will be transitioned to a secure chilled incubator to re-create what they would experience in the wild. Others will be kept in protected spaces at the Zoo on their host plants to see which hibernation method is most successful. We will wake them up again next spring for even more breeding!

Next time you come to the Zoo, pick up our two new guides at the desk in the Maritz Family Lodge at the head of the Minnesota Trail! Free to Zoo guests, these will help you get to know your Butterfly Neighbors and how you can help butterflies and bees by Planting for Pollinators. These guides were produced with funds from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund that is supporting the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program.

Check back for more updates! We are excited and working hard for even more successes in the coming year.

Famous 2014 Minnesota Zoo-reared female Dakota skipper “SF10b8” – now a grandmother!  Dakota skipper raised at the Minnesota Zoo in 2015  Surveying for Dakota skippers and other troubled prairie butterflies in northwest Minnesota with our Field Research Vehicle, courtesy of Morrie’s AutoGroup  Male and female Dakota skippers on a South Dakota prairie, nectaring on purple coneflower. Dakota skippers mating at the Zoo. Individuals are safely marked with a colored dot to help us identify them.