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You Beauty!—A Tale of Tiny Rewilding

Today’s Endangered All-Star, the Dark Bordered Beauty Moth presents a fascinating opportunity for rewilding in the U.K. The Beauty is limited to a few tiny patches of habitat in northern England and Scotland, largely because of the decline of aspen. A priority species listed in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, this is one of several invertebrates destined for a captive-breeding and reintroduction program. According to a recent article in The Guardian, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Butterfly Conservation are behind the plan: Few things are as important to the perpetuation of birds as a biodiverse landscape. To expand viable habitat, the RSPB is undertaking to restore and replant core areas of aspen and to seek connectivity between aspen stands. Along with Butterfly Conservation, it hopes to release captive-bred Beauties on a reserve in Strathspey, in Scotland’s northern highlands, by next year. Other species slated for reintroduction include the Short-haired Bumblebee (extinct in the UK since 2000), reintroduced from a New Zealand population, and the Pine Hoverfly. This is not the first case of invertebrate rewilding in the UK. The Large Blue Butterfly has already been resurrected: From extinction in 1979, the Large Blue was brought back by way of eggs from a colony in Sweden, after extraordinary pains taken by a British entomologist. Jeremy Thomas, professor of ecology at the University of Oxford, spent years deciphering the life cycle of the Large Blue, laying trails of Battenburg cake for wary insects. He eventually discovered that this strange species was dependent on a relationship with an ant: Deploying a special fluid and singing persuasively, the Large Blue grub hoodwinks its host, Myrmica sabuleti, masquerading as the grub of a queen ant. Once inside the nest, Large Blue caterpillars dine out on ant grubs all winter, emerging from the nest in June as butterflies. The ant, however, requires grass neatly trimmed by rabbits, cattle, or sheep. Long grass creates a microclimate too cool by 2-3 degrees Centigrade, and the decline of both rabbits and livestock had spelled doom for the ant and its flashy guest. Few stories illustrate so clearly the complex interrelationships and dependencies that have evolved between species. Few suggest more forcefully how complicated it can be to restore them.
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