The Crystal skipper is a small brown butterfly endemic to 30-mile stretch of barrier islands in North Carolina between Fort Macon State Park and Hammocks Beach State Park. This butterfly gets its name from the small white “crystals” that dot its brown wings. While the crystal skipper is sometimes mistaken for a moth, it belongs to a group of butterflies called skippers. Skippers are typically stockier and duller compared to many of the butterflies with which people are more familiar.
The North Carolina coast has its own species of butterfly – the Crystal skipper. Though first collected in 1978, it was not formally described as a new species Atrytonopsis quinteri until 2015. This small brown butterfly can be found around sand dunes along the Crystal Coast from April to May, and again from July to August.
The skipper is endemic to just a 50 kilometer stretch from Bear Island to Fort Macon State Park, and its total range is less than 3,300 ha. Unfortunately, the skipper is experiencing habitat fragmentation due to urban development, as much of its range overlaps with human activities, buildings and homes.
My students and I work with an interdisciplinary research team to conduct butterfly counts, vegetation surveys and habitat restoration projects to help support the Crystal skipper population.
Partners include North Carolina Aquariums, NC State University CMAST, Michigan State University, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, North Carolina Sea Grant, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, and the Master Gardeners.
In 2018 and 2019, we conducted vegetation surveys at six sites along Bogue Banks to assess the extent of seaside little bluestem, the skipper’s required host plant. Seaside little bluestem seed collection and propagation has enabled the team to plant over 1000 plants in areas where it was sparse.
In 2019, our vegetation surveys examined the impacts of Hurricane Florence on bluestem density and distribution. The results reflect the scouring effect of the hurricane and, combined with skipper surveys, helped us identify areas in need of additional restoration work.
The host and nectar plants required by the skipper are common dune plants. In Summer 2019, we partnered with the NC Botanical Garden to collect seeds from seaside little bluestem and other common dune plants that provide nectar for the Crystal skipper. These are being grown out for planting in the Fall of 2020.
There is great potential to engage students, property owners and beach municipalities in habitat restoration to benefit skippers and other native dune species.
The Crystal skipper has a small range, and is further limited in its habitat use because it is typically found in the swales between the primary and secondary dunes. Because of fragmentation due to human activity on the barrier island, it relies on small areas of suitable habitat scattered along Bogue Banks. Fortunately, research by Dr. Allison Leidner indicates that skippers are able to persist as long as there are enough good “stepping stone” patches of habitat. These patches need to include seaside little bluestem – the plant they prefer to lay eggs on – and plants that provide nectar.
Crystal skipper females lay their eggs on the leaves of seaside little bluestem. The plant also provides the first meals for the caterpillars after they hatch.
A team from the North Carolina Botanical Garden led our seed collection trip in Fort Macon State Park. The park supports a large Crystal skipper population. The Crystal skipper is most often found in the swales between the primary and secondary dunes.
A quick swipe along the stem is all it takes to collect a few seeds from this seaside little bluestem. These seeds are naturally distributed by the wind. Seaside little bluestem is a common and abundant plant in many dunes along Bogue Banks.
During vegetation surveys in 2018 and 2019, we assessed the density of seaside little bluestem and other dune plants in 1-m2 quadrants. In 2018 this data helped us determine where to target habitat restoration efforts. We planted bluestem in sites that had lower densities to provide additional host plants for skippers looking for places to lay their eggs.
The Crystal skipper relies on many native dune plants as sources of nectar. This even includes the flowers of the dune prickly pear. The bright red seed pods were collected for grow out as a nectar plant.
In 2018, Ian Grace (Semester at CMAST, 2018, second from the left) designed and conducted vegetation surveys along Bogue Banks. He enlisted community volunteers – including the Carteret County Master Gardeners pictured here– to help plant seaside little bluestem in sites that had lower densities of seaside little bluestem.
In 2018, a group of volunteers planted about 1000 seaside little bluestem plugs in sand dunes on Atlantic Beach. The plants were grown at a local nursery from seeds collected the previous year. We chose areas where vegetation surveys indicated low densities of this plant. The Crystal skipper needs to lay its eggs on seaside little bluestem, so habitat restoration is an important component of conservation efforts for this butterfly.
Mike Kunz (right), a conservation ecologist at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, led a seed collection trip in 2019. It was a perfect day to walk through the dunes and collect seeds from seaside little bluestem as well as other plants that provide nectar for the Crystal skipper.
Other flowering dune plants like these dune blue curls provide nourishing nectar for the Crystal skipper and other butterflies.