MSU biologist Chris Barnhart checks on the Regal fritillary caterpillars he's raising at Temple Hall in hopes of boosting wild populations on tracts of native prairie. (Photo by Wes Johnson)

In the basement of Temple Hall at Missouri State University, biologist Chris Barnhart is raising what he hopes will be the future of an increasingly rare Missouri butterfly.

If his research project succeeds, thousands of spiked caterpillars and hundreds of brightly colored adult butterflies will soon be released into small tracts of virgin Missouri prairie to help the species survive.

These are not just ordinary fritillary butterflies.  They are Regal fritillaries, and their entire existence depends on the wild purple violet plants that grow on native natural prairie.

The problem, Barnhart says, is that there’s very little natural prairie left in Missouri, less than 1 percent of what originally stretched across western and northern portions of the state. With Earth Day (April 22) just around the corner, Barnhart’s work takes on special meaning. 

“Regal fritillaries don’t live everywhere,” Barnhart said while tending his crop of caterpillars enclosed in mesh cages.  “They’re only found on high-quality prairie that’s never been plowed or grazed intensively.”

A ‘species of concern’ as prairies diminish

A Regal fritillary butterfly, a dwindling species of concern in Missouri.

With so little of that natural prairie left in the state, the number of Regal fritillary butterflies is diminishing. They are a “species of concern” according to project partner Missouri Department of Conservation.

Barnhart said the Regal fritillary also has been proposed to be listed as a federally threatened or endangered species, a decision that likely will be made next year.

Unlike Monarch butterflies, which typically produce four broods in a season, Regal fritillaries only produce one brood. Barnhart said that puts the iconic Missouri butterfly at risk if something should happen to that solitary brood on one of the small tracts of native prairie.

A grass fire, for example,  on a native prairie tract could easily wipe out one of the pockets of Regal fritillaries. If another native prairie tract with Regal fritillaries isn’t located nearby, it could take a long time for the butterflies to make their way back and repopulate their burned prairie home.

“Because they only reproduce once a year, that way they’re vulnerable,” Barnhart said.  “They just have that one shot. It’s been recognized for decades that they’re diminishing.”

Barnhart’s is in the second year of growing Regal fritillaries in his Temple Hall lab.  Eggs are hatched in refrigerators — he discovered early on the butterflies need colder temperatures than he originally thought. 

The tiny hatchling caterpillars are later transferred to flowering pansy plants donated by Wickman’s Garden Village, which serve as acceptable substitutes for wild prairie violets they normally feed on.

“In the wild, the females lay eggs in September and the eggs hatch in October,” Barnhart said.  “They have microscopically small caterpillars that survive over winter.”

Two Regal fritillary caterpillars raised by MSU biologist Chris Barnhart, in partnership with Missouri Department of Conservation. (Photo by Chris Barnhart)

In the spring the caterpillars grow larger, dining on violets, then encase themselves in a protective chrysalis before emerging as strikingly beautiful butterflies. It’s that process Barnhart hopes to reproduce in his lab to make thousands of caterpillars and butterflies to release onto wild violets in four native prairie tracts.

Closest virgin prairie

The closest virgin prairie to Springfield is the 37-acre La Petite Gemme Prairie Conservation Area along the northern portion of the Frisco Highline Ozark Greenway trail.  Barnhart said visitors might spot a few Regal fritillaries there, but they’d likely have more success at larger native prairie areas in western Missouri, like Prairie State Park near Liberal. 

“It is a butterfly that will get people out on the prairie to see it,” Barnhart said.  “The iconic tallgrass prairie picture is a purple coneflower with a Regal fritillary on it.  They’ve been viewed as a poster child for high-quality native prairie because that’s the only place you’ll see them. They’re not making any more of it (native prairie) so we’ve got to preserve what we’ve got.”

Three Regal fritillary butterflies pause on wild purple coneflowers at a native Missouri prairie. The butterflies are diminishing in Missouri. (Photo by Chris Barnhart)

There actually are three fritillary species in Missouri but the Regal fritillary is the only one that’s threatened,  Barnhart said, noting there’s still more to learn about the species.

  “We don’t know why Regals are that way,” he said.