The Baton Blue Butterfly

Mt Sinai Baton Blue

The smallest butterfly in the world

It’s the world’s smallest butterfly, no larger than a thumbnail, and it’s only found on Mt Sinai and a few surrounding peaks. With such a tiny distribution, its survival is at risk from any disturbance to its habitat. Being endemic to Egypt and endangered, it has become an emblem for conservation issues in the country.

The vulnerability of the butterfly lies in its exclusive dependence on a single species of plant for its life cycle, Sinai Thyme. In spring, the females lay their eggs on the young flower buds which provide food for the small larvae when they hatch out. After a few weeks of heavy feeding, the small larvae develop into fat caterpillars which waddle down the plant into the leaf litter below where they spin a fine silk thread and wrap themselves up in it. Here they remain cocooned throughout the autumn and winter, undergoing a slow metamorphosis of their body tissues, until the following spring when butterflies emerge and flutter off in search of mates. In their insanely short lives, the males seek to couple as many times as possible while the females content themselves with only once , though after such a long wait, it’s not done in haste and is often prolonged to over an hour. A day later, the females lay their eggs on the flower buds and the cycle recommences.

The Sinai Thyme, so critical to the butterfly, can only survive under certain conditions of temperature and humidity and is now restricted to a few isolated patches above 1500 m in gullies and mountain basins around Mt Sinai. Any significant rise in average temperatures brought about by global warming would push the altitude threshold for the plant further up and probably result in the plant disappearing forever from its last remaining habitat.

Meanwhile the Bedouin that live in the region have given up their semi-nomadic life style and settled in the village of St Katherine at the foot of Mt Sinai. However, they still have their goats, and since fodder is expensive to bring into the village, the young women are sent up into hills in the immediate vicinity of the village to graze their herds. The impact of this high intensity grazing can be seen in the changing pattern of plant distribution around the village where inedible and toxic plants have colonized areas cleared of edible fodder. Thyme only survives beyond the crags where the young women don’t venture.

But the old women do!

The Bedouin have long exploited the potencies of the local herbs in traditional medicines and it is the old women who go out and collect them. Toughened by a lifetime outside, a few of them still live in the gardens up in the High Mountains and make a living from collecting the medicinal herbs. These are sold in the village or sent to the lucrative markets in Cairo. There are not many ways for women to earn a living, but this is one of them.

Should a patch of Thyme be cleared by grazing or harvesting, the butterflies can only survive by colonizing another patch. Unfortunately, they are bad fliers and are generally content to flit around their own Thyme bush, rarely migrating further than 40m, – although longer migrations do take place and provide the only tenuous assurance of survival for the global population.

The butterflies also have a problematical relationship with ants. Those of the species, Lepisiota obtusa, will protect the caterpillars from aggressors while “milking” them of honeydew secreted by specialised glands on the caterpillar’s epidermis. Other ants, however, of the species Crematogaster aegyptiaca, will prey upon the caterpillars and can exterminate a whole population. In this way, several patches of Thyme in the High Mountain have been completely cleared of the butterfly.

With their habitat degraded by global warming, overgrazing and medicinal plant collection, while physically assaulted by armies of predatory ants and reluctant to relocate, the future for the Baton Blue Butterfly would look grim were it not for a few local initiatives.

In 2002, the St Katherine National Park identified the Baton Blue Butterfly as a high priority for protection. To this purpose it reintroduced a traditional practice, the Helf, which had been used by the Bedouin in the past to allow sensitive growth and flowering to take place in the High Mountains during spring by forbidding the herds of goats from moving up into the mountains until the moment apricots first appeared. Based on this practice, the National Park declared the whole area around the peak of Safsafa on Mt Sinai to be a Helf where grazing was forbidden during the months of April to July when the butterflies were mating and the larvae were feeding off the Thyme plants.

For over twenty years, students from the universities of Suez and Nottingham have been doing field work in the area under the guidance of Dr. Samy Zalat and Dr. Francis Gilbert, and they continue to monitor the local populations of the butterfly.

It was one of their graduate students, Mike James, who did the first research into the butterfly between 2001 and 2003. When applying for a scholarship, he had to admit that the butterfly hadn’t been recorded since 1975 and that he couldn’t be sure of its continued existence. Nevertheless, he managed to find it and study its life cycle in detail and demonstrated how the Baton Blue Butterfly could be used as a model for all other species under threat from habitat destruction, particularly for those that live in fragmented and isolated colonies, an increasingly common scenario for vulnerable species. He is responsible for turning a curiosity into a flagship species for conservation. His photographs illustrate this article.

And finally, by advertising the plight of the world’s smallest butterfly to all visitors to St Katherine, we hope to keep the National Park and the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency alert to their responsibilities.

This blog first appeared in the Cairo CSA Oasis magazine to promote an awarenes of the Sinai landscape and the environmental threats.

 

Baton blue butterfly eggs, Mt Sinai

Eggs on buds

 

 

Baton Blue butterfly, larva, Mt Sinai

Caterpillar

 

Baton Blue butterfly larva with ants

Friends

Baton Blue butterfly larva with killer ants, St Catherine, Sinai

Foes

Baton Blue butterfly cocoons, Mt Sinai

Cocoons

Baton Blue butterfly, Mt Sinai

Emerging

Baton Blue butterfly, male adult, Mt Sinai

Male adult

Baton Blue butterflies mating, Mt Sinai

Mating

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