Butterfly Surveys in the Rockies

This August, my wife Emily and I stayed for three nights in Kananaskis Country, Alberta at the Biogeoscience Institute (BGI) run by the University of Calgary. While there we were able to go into the field with four different research teams. One group was studying the Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly (Parnassius smintheus) as part of a longterm collaborative project between the University of Cincinnati, University of Alberta, and Western University. As you might guess of a butterfly named after the Rocky Mountains and the Greek god of the sun, they live on alpine meadows at the tops of mountains.

 Undergraduate researcher Sean Bishop treks through a steep alpine meadow during survey work for rare butterflies on Jumpingpound Mountain in Alberta, Canada. The mountain is named for a nearby site once used as a buffalo jump by the Blackfoot First Nations.

Undergraduate researcher Sean Bishop treks through a steep alpine meadow during survey work for rare butterflies on Jumpingpound Mountain in Alberta, Canada. The mountain is named for a nearby site once used as a buffalo jump by the Blackfoot First Nations.


The butterfly crew members were Jennifer Goff, Emily McNamara, and Sean Bishop. We left BGI, drove to nearby Jumpingpound Mountain, and hiked a couple miles to the meadow at its summit. The trail through the woods up the mountain was beautiful. Our fleet-footed companions usually bounded up it in about an hour, but were patient for Emily and me with our Florida legs and lungs. After spending five years in Florida living at about 100 ft. above sea level, a hike to an elevation of 7,300 ft was very difficult on my lungs, and I had to stop many times to catch my breath. Truthfully, the hike up really was frightening as I had never experienced anything like it before. Fortunately, the challenge did make the payoff sweeter. The view from the summit was awe inspiring. The pride I felt from my herculean efforts quickly vanished when a few minutes later a family with a young girl popped out of the same forest trail looking as if they had done nothing difficult or out of the ordinary. I think that memory will make me smile for many years.

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The data the crew was collecting on butterflies was part of a long-term research project begun in 1995. The project, led by Dr. Matter examines concepts like spatial and temporal metapopulation dynamics, the effects of climate change and extreme weather on population dymamics, mechanisms of dispersal, effects and causes of rising treeline, and female mating success. Basically, they are trying to understand the complex dynamics of butterfly life on mountaintop meadows that are shrinking as climate change drives treelines higher. You can learn more on their website: https://mattersf.wixsite.com/alpinebutterflies

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The day we visited, August 13, 2018, was the last day of field work for the season. The crew didn’t expect to find any Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterflies. Fortunately, just as we were getting ready to head back down the trail, they found two of them. I watched as Jennifer Goff caught, measured, and tagged hers by writing some identification letters on its wing.

 Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly

Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly

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I am so grateful groups like this butterfly crew are out there every year improving our knowledge of the natural word and recording the changes happening on our planet. This was a truly amazing experience and I am so appreciative of the time they spent showing Emily and I their work.

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 Not a butterfly, but this little critter and its partner were so darned cute.

Not a butterfly, but this little critter and its partner were so darned cute.

 Jennifer Goff, Seasonal Technician

Jennifer Goff, Seasonal Technician

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 Sean Bishop,  Undergraduate Researcher

Sean Bishop, Undergraduate Researcher

 Emily McNamara, Undergraduate Researcher

Emily McNamara, Undergraduate Researcher

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 Emily and me on Jumpingpound

Emily and me on Jumpingpound

Dustin Angell