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Expert Studies Butterfly Habitat at Natural Area

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Thursday, October 12, 2017

As a small state division with a big mission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC) works in partnership to increase its reach. One of the ways that the ANHC achieves this is by contracting with individuals who are experts in specific areas of study. This diversifies the ANHC's research base, helping guide conservation decisions.

One individual that the ANHC has contracted with through the years is Dr. William Baltosser, professor of biology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Baltosser has conducted surveys of the Diana fritillary (Speyeria diana), Arkansas's state butterfly, at Terre Noire Natural Area annually since 2010.

The Diana is a species of concern in Arkansas due to its diminishing numbers. Baltosser's research documents the habitat requirements of the butterfly with the goal of better understanding how land management practices impact the species’ survival.

Terre Noire Natural Area

Prior to its ownership by the ANHC, decades of fire suppression altered the plant composition and structure at Terre Noire. This practice allowed Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) to aggressively spread throughout the area and shade out native grasses and blooming plants (forbs) which need direct sunlight to grow. Adult butterflies need wildflowers for forage (food, nectar in this case). Prescribed burns and mechanical removal of the Eastern red-cedar has allowed the tree canopy to open up and wildflowers return to the landscape.

Using Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates and data from annual butterfly surveys at Terre Noire, Baltosser and his team are taking the research further, examining the potential impact of reduced tree canopy cover on the survival of violets to help strike a balance in management. While restoration has increased forage for the Diana, it is also important to consider the larval food, violets, for the species. Baltosser's research will help guide future management of Terre Noire and similar areas.

Terre Noire Natural Area, co-owned by the ANHC and The Nature Conservancy, is one of the highest-quality examples of blackland prairies and woodland complexes remaining in the state. Blackland prairies are found on limestone formations deposited millions of years ago when this area of the state was at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Located in the Coastal Plain ecoregion of Arkansas (southwest Arkansas), the 493-acre natural area is home to a number of rare plant and animal species.