Captive breeding could save fragile butterfly from extinction

Only 45 Lange's metalmark butterflies were left in the wild in 2006 -- down 98% from a population of 2,300 in 1999 -- when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service called for a captive breeding program to try to save the species (Apodemia mormo langei).

Last week, 30 pregnant butterflies were released into the Lange's only habitat, the 55-acre Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Preserve near San Francisco. The butterflies' parents were collected a year ago this week and bred at the Butterfly Project at Moorpark College, a program launched in 2007 with the aim to teach students how to preserve endangered butterflies.

This project marks the first time that the Lange's metalmark butterfly has bred in captivity, and biologists now hope and pray that this could be the first step toward saving this fragile species from extinction.

The Lange's metalmark thrives in sand dunes, which have been lost in the area due to human development, damming and sand mining. In the process, the butterflies also lost their primary "host" plant, the naked-stemmed buckwheat (eriogonum nudum auriculatum), the main food source for their larvae. Refuge managers have been reintroducing the buckwheat and hope to import more sand and remove invasive weeds as they attempt to reproduce and recreate the original conditions of the habitat.

The Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Preserve is also the world's only home to two other endangered species, the Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower. The preserve is closed to the public to help ensure these species' survival.