Nets out as scientists stalk elusive butterfly

24 January 2017 - 09:59 By SHAUN SMILLIE

A butterfly that was rediscovered after it was thought to be extinct for 21 years could be a casualty of the recent drought.

The Waterberg copper was rediscovered in 2013, in a small area in the Bateleur Nature Reserve in Limpopo, after the Lepidopterists' Society of Africa issued a wanted poster for the insect.

In late November last year, lepidopterist Reinier Terblanche visited the site to check on the rare butterfly but didn't see any on the wing.

"We hold our breath all the time when it comes to this butterfly," said Terblanche, who believed that the recent drought was probably the reason for the insect's absence.

The problem, explained Terblanche, was that the butterfly had a complicated lifecycle that involved the insect being looked after by ants in their nest.

This complication includes a unique host plant that the larva feeds on, and a particular species of grass favoured by the ants.

"It is an amazing butterfly, but what would be ideal is that we have three or four localities were it is found," Terblanche said.

The Waterberg copper was originally discovered in 1982, in the central Waterberg.

This original discovery site was a conservation area, but Lepsoc's Steve Woodhall explained that in the political transition from apartheid to the current democracy the area fell into an administrative "black hole".

When Lepsoc visited the site they found it left in ruin. The short grass and plants the butterflies depend on had been replaced by turpentine grass.

In the hope of rediscovering the insect, Lepsoc issued a wanted poster that offered a reward of R10000 for anyone who spotted it.

It finally was rediscovered by Mark "the Butterfly Whisperer" Williams on May 2 2013.

He found the new site, Bateleur Nature Reserve, which is about 40km from where the rare butterfly was originally discovered, by identifying likely habitation spots on Google Earth.

Terblanche is planning a trip to the reserve in the next week or so and is hoping that the recent rains might have encouraged the butterfly, that is not much bigger than a 50c piece, to emerge.

"A lot of work needs to be done to understand the butterfly. It could be that during times of drought the larva remains in the ant nests.

"As a species they would have survived far worse droughts," said Woodhall.