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Discover 4 lesser-known butterflies getting a helping hand on the coast

Thursday 10 February 2022 | 5 min read

South Australia is home to 78 species of butterflies, and around 30 of them are threatened. Read on to learn about 4 lesser-known butterflies that have become the focus of recovery work on Adelaide’s coast.

Diamond sand-skipper with wings slightly open-Matt Endacott
Diamond sand-skipper with its wings slightly open. Photo: Matt Endacott.

Butterflies are important pollinators, helping plants grow and spread. They’re also yummy food for birds and lizards.

Unfortunately, habitat loss – particularly the loss of plants that caterpillars and butterflies rely on – has reduced the amount of food, homes and mates for this insect. This has put 30 species of Adelaide’s butterflies at risk of extinction.

Here’s all you need to know about 4 lesser-known coastal butterflies in need of a helping hand:

1. Diamond sand-skipper

When it comes to fussy eating butterflies the diamond sand-skipper (Antipodia atralba) is right up there with the yellowish sedge-skipper, which prefers only one type of plant.

The caterpillars of the diamond sand skipper will just eat the desert saw-sedge (Gahnia lanigera).

What makes this a problem is that there is not a lot of saw-sedge on Adelaide’s coast. It’s also very hard to propagate, which makes improving habitat for these skippers difficult.

The size of the butterfly population is directly impacted by how many of the sedges, with fresh shoots, there are for the caterpillars to munch on. Because of this, populations tend to boom after fire, as fire causes new growth to spring up.

Diamond sand-skipper-Martin Stokes
Diamond sand-skipper. Photo: Martin Stokes.

The diamond sand skipper population is stable in Adelaide, but its fussiness with food makes it a species in need of some attention to help prevent them becoming threatened.

To help, we’ve been out on the lookout for these butterflies and recording where they’re living and the size of their population. We’re also looking after the small patches of desert saw-sedge found on our coast. We’re working out how best to grow more of this tricky plant so we increase the diamond sand skipper’s habitat.

You can spot these butterflies at Marino Conservation Park and Hallett Cove Conservation Park.

Fun fact: You’ll only see this butterfly in spring and autumn.

Diamond sand-skipper-Photo Matt Endacott.
Diamond sand-skipper. Photo: Matt Endacott.

2. Mottled grass skipper

The mottled grass skipper (Anisynta cynone cynone) likes to dine on native grasses such as coastal tussock grass (Poa poiformis var. poiformis) – delish – and spear grass (Austrostipa spp.) – mm, mmm – and it’s not above eating introduced species like couch grass (Cynodon dactylon) and kikuyu grass (Cenchrus clandestinus).

These grasses are in large supply, but this has not translated to a booming mottled grass skipper numbers; in fact, they’ve only been spotted at 3 locations along the Adelaide coastline recently (we’re hoping – and looking – for more).

This species’ butterfly stage only lasts for short time though so that does make them hard to spot.

Fun fact: Ever heard of rain helping a caterpillar hatch? Autumn rains help this species emerge from their eggs.

Mottled grass skipper-photo Matt Endacott.
Mottled grass skipper. Photo: Matt Endacott.
Mottled grass skipper with its wings open-photo: Matt Endacott
Mottled grass skipper with its wings open. Photo: Matt Endacott.

3. Southern purple azure

Thanks to Disney’s Tarzan, the idea of being raised by apes doesn’t seem all that strange (it just results in the ability to talk to animals and surprisingly good dance skills) – but being brought up by ants, now that might be a little more unusual. But, this is all the southern purple azure butterfly (Ogyris genoveva) knows.

Sugar ants (Camponotus consobrinus) are the guardians of these caterpillars. The ants do it because they like to eat the sugary substance discharged by the caterpillars (let’s not think too hard about where this comes from).

This is no chance meeting – southern purple azure butterflies will not lay their eggs anywhere the sugar ants aren’t found.

A purple azure-credit Matt Endacott
A purple azure. Photo: Matt Endacott.

Purple azures are rare in Adelaide. Their numbers have declined due to less habitat and fragmentation (essentially habitat being broken up into little, disconnected bits).

Aside from a healthy supply of the right ants, this butterfly also requires box mistletoe (Amyema miquelii) to feast upon when a caterpillar. So it’s worth considering leaving it in your coastal garden if you have it.

To help boost the purple azures habitat we’re looking for and recording where mistletoe can be found. This will give us a better idea of the food available. Mistletoe often gets a bad rap, but it’s an extremely important resource for many insects and birds. Understanding and maintaining various mistletoes will be central to conserving this and many other butterfly species.

4. Golden-haired sedge skipper

This butterfly’s name might conjure up images of a sparkling gold butterfly, or one with golden blonde locks? Well, it’s actually myth.

The golden-haired sedge skipper (Hesperilla chrysotricha) may possibility be locally extinct due loss of habitat – and is considered an extremely vulnerable species of butterfly.

This butterfly eats several plant species of Gahnia, including Gahnia filum (known as thatching grass). This is the same plant that is eaten by yellowish sedge-skipper caterpillars. The plants alone are not enough though – they also need to planted somewhere sunny, not too crowded, with clear ground and well-hydrated soil.

In the most recent searches for this butterfly around Adelaide’s, none were spotted at the coastal sites they have previously been recorded. So, more searches are needed to discover how they are really faring. Although this species may have disappeared from the coast, it’s possible that healthy populations may be elsewhere. If that’s the case, it may be possible to reintroduce them – it has been with the yellowish sedge skipper.

Golden-haired sedge skipper-photo: Matt Endacott.
Golden-haired sedge skipper. Photo: Matt Endacott.

How you can help

To protect our butterflies – and re-introduce some that may be locally extinct – we’re working on management plans to boost their numbers.

You can help by learning how to transform your garden into a wonderland for butterflies.

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