Are its butterfly populations in Michigan still genetically viable?

A picture of Poweshiek Skipperlings mating.

Dr. Saarinen captured this image of two Poweshiek Skipperlings mating.

Although the majority of activity in the U-M Advanced Genomics Core is directed at biomedical research, the Core also participates in studies exploring ecology and evolution. These services are usually performed on behalf of researchers in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LS&A), for example in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department. One project is a collaboration between the Core Director, Dr. Robert Lyons, and a Biology faculty member at UM-Dearborn, Dr. Emily Saarinen.

This study was mentioned in a recent University Record article about Dr. Saarinen’s work on a butterfly, the Poweshiek Skipperling [learn more about the butterfly from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Fact Sheet]. She is interested in determining the genetic diversity of remnant populations in Michigan, in order to characterize its long-term viability.

Dr. Lyons and Dr. Saarinen worked on studying the Poweshiek Skipperling by using the Pacific Biosciences RS Sequencer in the Advanced Genomics Core. The PacBio instrument was provided to the University of Michigan by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and proved to be the ideal sequencing system for their needs.

With butterflies part of everyday life in the warm months here in the Midwest, it’s hard to think of them as a rare species. But this particular butterfly, native to Michigan, is a candidate for the Endangered Species list.

Dr. Saarinen has studied the butterfly for the past three years, working to understand why its population is in decline.

Part of the issue is that the butterfly suffers from considerable loss of habitat. “It’s found in wet prairies and fens, and a lot of these habitats have been drained or modified for agricultural use,” Dr. Saarinen explained. “Invasive plants that aren’t naturally found in the area have also made it inhospitable for native species.”

The Poweshiek Skipperling is currently under review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and the decision to add it to the Endangered Species list should be announced within a few months. Dr. Saarinen said that data warrants the Poweshiek Skipperling being listed as an endangered species.

“When people think of endangered species, they often think of something like the Giant Panda. Most estimates cite that there are about 1,500 Giant Pandas left in the world,” Dr. Saarinen said. “To put that in perspective, our estimates are that there are about 500 Poweshiek Skipperlings left in the world. We have something in even more a dire situation than the Giant Panda right in our own backyard.”

Butterflies worldwide are on the decline. “Monarch Butterflies’ migration route is in danger. Like our Poweshiek Skipperling, their habitat is being developed and caterpillars don’t have the appropriate foods to eat. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, which is considered a weed and often destroyed by people.

“We’re seeing the same problem on a big scale,” she said. “Butterflies are important to education and as pollinators. They are a great hook to get kids excited and learning about science and nature.”

About Emily Saarinen, Ph.D.
Dr. Saarinen received her Ph.D. in Entomology from the University of Florida. After completing postdoctoral work with the Department Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at the University of Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, she became a lecturer at Oregon State University. Dr. Saarinen joined the University of Michigan-Dearborn as an Assistant Professor in 2011.

About Robert Lyons, Ph.D.
Dr. Lyons grew up in mid-Michigan, did his undergraduate work at Michigan State University, then completed his doctorate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After post-doctoral research at SmithKline Beckman  (King of Prussia, PA), Bob came to the University of Michigan in 1988. He assumed the Directorship of the Advanced Genomics Core in 1995 when it consisted of two technicians, two DNA sequencers, and 400 square feet of laboratory space. The facility has grown since then to include 29 people, over 20 major pieces of genomic analysis equipment and 10,000 square feet of space in NCRC.