Welcome to the world of the Island Marble Butterfly
In early 2010, the San Juan Preservation Trust received a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to assist government agencies with education and outreach for the Island Marble butterfly (Euchloe ausonides insulanus). This page serves as an introduction to this amazing endemic sub-species. Contact information and links for further exploration are provided near the end of this page.
What is the Island Marble Butterfly? What is its significance to the San Juan Islands?
The Island Marble is a distinct subspecies of butterfly that was originally discovered in 1861 on Vancouver Island, and last seen in 1908 on nearby Gabriola Island in the Canadian Gulf Islands. After nearly 100 years of no reported sightings, in 1998, John Fleckenstein with the Washington Department of Natural Resources “re-discovered” the butterfly at the south end of San Juan Island. Its rediscovery caused considerable excitement among scientists and the general public alike.
Since the Island Marble’s rediscovery, concerted efforts have been made to search for the species, in likely coastal habitat throughout Puget Sound and the Salish Sea (including its historical home in the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island). Currently, the Island Marble has only been found on small patches (or islands!) of habitat on San Juan and Lopez Islands.
Because of its rarity and fragility, governments in British Columbia and the US have listed the Island Marble as a Species of Conservation Concern. Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife has listed the Island Marble as a State Candidate species for possible listing as endangered, threatened, or sensitive.
This is the only known place in the world where this tiny creature lives, and its future lays in our hands.
What does an Island Marble Butterfly look like?
The Island Marble is a medium-sized, creamy white butterfly that measures approx. 1.75 inches (4.5 cm) wing tip to wing tip. It is white above, with black-patterned wingtips, and a fine black rectangle mid-wing. It has a mottled pattern of greenish-yellow on the underwings. The Island Marble’s flight pattern is straight, fluttering, and fast. Marbles may feed and perch with wings either folded or flat.
Island marble caterpillars have five distinct phases of development, or instars. The caterpillar will have a different appearance with each subsquent molt. A late instar of the Island Marble caterpillar is quite striking: it has very distinctive blue and yellow stripes and is covered with tiny black dots (see below; photo: Jane K Fox, SJPT). Island Marble caterpillars can be found most often feasting on their host plant.
Similar butterflies that can be mistaken for the Island Marble
The Island Marble is similar in appearance to the common and widespread Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly, which uses the same host and nectar plants. It can be difficult to tell them apart—especially in flight. Look carefully at perched individuals and note the subtle differences in the markings both on top of their wings (dorsal) and below (ventral). Look for adults on the wing or perched on nectar/host plants (see below for a list) from early April- late June.
Other similar butterflies found in the San Juans include the Sara Orangetip (Anchicharis sara) and Pine White (Neophasia menapia). Photos of all of these butterflies can be found by clicking here.
What type of habitat does the Island Marble need to survive?
Key Island Marble habitat includes coastal prairie, the margins of saltwater lagoons, gardens, fields, pastures, and disturbed areas.
A requirement of the Island Marble’s habitat is a “host” plant, which provides a place for the butterfly to lays its eggs and food for the growing caterpillars. Host plants include the field mustard (Brassica campestris), quite common in the San Juan Islands. Other important host plants are tall tumble mustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) and tall peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum).
These mustards, when in flower, also provide nectar for the adults. Additionally, adult Island Marbles will feed from American searocket (Cakile edentula), small-flowered fiddleneck (Amsinkia menziesii), and field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) and many other native and non-native flowering plants.
Island Marble life cycle
Even when the butterflies aren’t “visible,” they are still with us. The Island Marble inhabits San Juan and Lopez Islands year-round. In the late spring, butterflies lay eggs on the host plants. These eggs will then hatch into caterpillars which will feed on the host plants. After fully maturing, the caterpillars will crawl a short distance to form a chrysalis on low vegetation, where they remain through the winter – and if all goes well – emerge as butterflies the following spring.
What are the threats to their survival?
Any activities that destroy their host plants can threaten the Island Marble’s survival. This can include clearing/development, mowing, deer browse, grazing, plowing, and use of herbicides. While field mustard germinates and grows after ground-disturbing activities (such as plowing and burning), once the mustard plants are established, it can be harmful to any existing populations of the butterflies to disrupt the soil, as the chrysalids can be destroyed. Additionally, pesticide use on and around plants can kill the adults/larvae outright.
Current status / Research efforts
Many partners are working together to conserve and protect Island Marble butterflies. On San Juan Island, USFWS and The National Park Service have entered a Conservation Agreement that implements conservation measures specifically addressing the needs of this butterfly on NPS property. Biologists have been conducting annual surveys for the Island Marble at known and potential sites, and ongoing research is being conducted to learn more about the population size, life history, and habitat needs of this butterfly. Other partners working on Island Marble conservation are Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Washington Department of Natural Resources, San Juan County Land Bank, the San Juan Preservation Trust, The Xerces Society, KWIAHT, and a host of private landowners, schools, and concerned citizens.
Where can I report sightings or learn more?
- Read more about the butterfly on Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s page here.
- Report sightings (see note following) to Ann Potter at WDFW (email@example.com) OR Ted Thomas, USFWS (firstname.lastname@example.org) OR to Kathleen Foley, San Juan Preservation Trust (email@example.com or 378-2461).
Please be certain you are looking at an Island Marble butterfly before reporting any sightings. Biologists are especially interested in sightings originating from outside of the south end of San Juan Island. Please use a “hands-off” approach when observing this butterfly. It is illegal under Washington State law to collect it, even for catch & release, without a state permit.
Content for this web page provided in part by the US Fish & Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.