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After more than 20 years of searching, biologist finds rare 'bog elfin' butterfly in Vermont

About the size of a penny, a bog elfin, its wings folded over its body, sips nectar among the petals of a rhodora flower.
Bryan Pfeiffer
About the size of a penny, a bog elfin, its wings folded over its body, sips nectar among the petals of a rhodora flower.

After more than 20 years of searching, a Vermont biologist has discovered a rare butterfly in Vermont.

The bog elfin is one of the smallest butterflies in North America. It spends most of its life high up in the boughs of black spruce trees in bogs.

"The caterpillars chew on black spruce needles, which is really unusual for a butterfly," said consulting biologist Bryan Pfeiffer, who discovered them. "Most butterflies don't eat spruces and pines. They eat herbaceous, woody plants."

The insects are threatened by climate change, habitat loss and pesticide use across much of their range.

They're also incredibly hard to see, in part because the brown butterflies camouflage expertly with their surroundings.

But that's not the only reason they're difficult to spot — the bog elfin only flies for a few weeks each year, from mid-May to June, which is the peak of Vermont's black fly season.

Pfeiffer spent 22 years looking for the imperiled insects.

But he says it was time well spent.

“Bogs drew me to bog elfins," Pfeiffer said, adding that he's always loved the wet, overlooked landscapes because they just feel like home. "They are open mats of squishy, wet sphagnum, with orchids blooming like little purple flames. And there are this suite of unusual birds and insects and plants."

Pfeiffer found a bog elfin on May 19 in a northern Vermont bog.

But he said it's very likely he walked right past one or two of them in the past.

“I like to think that age and experience count for something," Pfeiffer said. "You know, like that being a 65-year-old field biologist does count for something, not the least of which includes slowing down and being more aware of where I am."

He said this sighting brings a new responsibility for Vermont.

"We join only a handful of states and provinces that have an obligation to see to it that this butterfly does not go extinct," he said. "It's vulnerable or imperiled across much of its range. And I think that's a solemn responsibility."

You, too, can look for butterflies — and help protect them

June is a great time to look for butterflies in Vermont. And the Vermont Center for Ecostudies is asking residents to share what they see.

The second Vermont Butterfly Atlas kicked off this spring. It's an effort to document all of the butterflies in Vermont.

“This is an opportunity to have fun and contribute to our knowledge of biological diversity in the state. And you don’t need to know butterflies to participate," Pfeiffer said. "You know, you only need a camera and some youthful exuberance.”

In fact, it's so common for novice butterfly watchers to make new discoveries, Pfeiffer joked it was likely that would happen while he quested for the bog elfin.

Habitat loss, pesticides and climate change arecausing insect populations to decline all over the world.

Scientists say documenting them is one way everyday people can help.

Take the bog elfin, for example.

"Bogs in Vermont are still wonderful places. But a bog with a bog elfin is a better bog, it's a different bog. It's a bog that's more complete," Pfeiffer said.

You can learn how to contribute here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

Corrected: June 12, 2023 at 9:10 AM EDT
A previous version of this story reported that Bryan Pfeiffer returned a few days later to the bog to confirm his sighting of a bog elfin, but Pfeiffer confirmed the sighting on May 19. The story has been corrected.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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