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Neonympha mitchellii francisi, Saint Francis' Satyr Butterfly

The Saint Francis’ Satyr (Neonympha mitchellii francisci) is one of the rarest butterflies in Eastern North America. Discovered and declared extinct within the same year, the Saint Francis’ satyr was first described in 1989 from collections made in North Carolina. Shortly thereafter, lepidopterists believed that the butterfly had been collected to extinction. Fortunately, in 1992, a small metapopulation was found in Cumberland and Hoke counties, North Carolina. Extensive searches in both North and South Carolina found no other populations; due to its extremely limited range and the threat posed by collectors, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pushed through an emergency rule in 1994 to give the species endangered status. On January 26, 1995, the final rule listing the species as endangered was published.

Saint Francis’ satyr is a small, dark brown butterfly with a wingspan of 34 to 44 millimeters. This species has several eyespots on the ventral surface of both its forewing and hindwing. The eyespots have a maroon center with lighter patches that cast a silver glow in certain light; a yellow ring surrounds the center and a dark brown ring forms the outermost border. Orange bands across the center of the wings and along the posterior edges add a bit of color. It is a typical member of the Satyrinae, a subfamily of the Nymphalidae, and is nearly identical in size to Mitchell’s satyr, N. m. mitchellii, which is also listed as endangered. Both species show only a slight degree of sexual size dimorphism.

The life cycle of the Saint Francis’ satyr is bivoltine – with two adult generations per year. Very little is known about the life history of this butterfly, but scientists believe that the larval stage feeds on graminoids such as grasses, sedges, and rushes. These plants dominate the wide, wet meadows the Saint Francis’ satyr inhabits. These flooded meadows are transitional communities that require on-going disturbance to maintain their open state. In the sandhills of North Carolina, these habitats are generally the relicts of beaver activity. Beavers had been nearly eliminated from North Carolina by the beginning of the twentieth century, and the loss of meadows created by their damming activities has probably been the most important factor in the butterfly’s decline. In the past, fires may have provided the necessary disturbance to maintain this state of succession, but, today, fires are suppressed on many sites. Currently, the best habitat for Saint Francis’ satyr is located on the training grounds at Fort Bragg due to the disturbance created by the periodic fires from firing live weapons.

The Saint Francis’ Satyr is greatly sought after and highly prized by collectors, but with only a single metapopulation, collection poses a serious threat. In order to save this species from extinction, the last remaining population must be protected and maintained. The area must be monitored during the species’ flight period to control poaching, and the disturbances that maintain its habitat (periodic fires and beaver activity) must continue. Furthermore, additional research is needed to learn more about the life history and demographic dynamics of this species. Knowledge about its habitat requirements is currently very limited, but with more information, scientists may be able to locate suitable habitats for potential reintroduction sites.



Written by: Megan Vidler

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