Expeditions In The Interest Of Science (Secondary Discovery, Nature’s Majesty)


The survey crew inventories the park for butterfly habitats (Credit: John McLaughlin)

This BBC article, featuring butterfly hunters in the very northwestern-most spot in the lower 48 of the USA, reminds us of an expedition we tracked not long ago:

Equal parts academic and mountain man, wildlife biologist John McLaughlin has scaled mountains and traversed snowbound passes to identify more than 40 butterfly species.

It’s best to bring an ice axe when counting butterflies in North Cascades National Park. Located on the Canadian border in the US state of Washington, the park is renowned for its jagged peaks, limited trails and annual snow pack.

“Before my census crew could learn to identify over 40 butterfly species,” John McLaughlin recalled, “they had to know how to safely traverse snowbound, steep passes and – if necessary – to self-arrest using an ice axe.”

A wildlife biologist at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, McLaughlin has endured the inherent rigors of surveying the park’s invertebrates and mammals for more than two decades. Like most highly accomplished biologists, his passion for his subject began early. He created his first insect spreading board when he was in elementary school. In high school, he collected so many insect orders that his biology teacher, having assumed he’d purchased most of them, lowered his project grade.


North Cascades National Park borders Washington and Canada (Credit: Jennifer C/Flickr)

Thankfully, things have changed since then, and he is credited with completing a landmark study of the North Cascade’s butterfly population that demonstrates the remote, rugged environments within the park – the very sort of prohibitive characteristics he cherishes.

“North Cascades is one of the few places left on Earth that truly possesses wildness; it still contains the full complement of species that were here before human contact,” explained McLaughlin, who first visited the park to teach backcountry wildlife courses in the early ‘90s. “It’s inspiring on both an emotional and, probably not the best thing to say as a scientist, a spiritual level. But it’s also very challenging intellectually because the ruggedness – the unknown nature of much of it – creates a mystery and challenge for a scientist to try and figure out what’s going on there.”


A butterfly survey crew explores the park’s backcountry (Credit: John McLaughlin)

To this end, the Stanford University educated biologist – who studied under legendary ecologist and fellow lepidopterist Paul Ehrlich – had originally hoped to inventory the entire 684,303-acre park for butterfly habitats, including 236,000 acres of old growth forest that contain as much biomass per square mile as anywhere on Earth. However, because several of the study sites required two days of arduous hiking there and back, the late season snowpack forced him to select more “convenient” locations that could be reached in just one day. The study’s timeframe, one short summer season, intensified the pressure…

Read the whole article here.

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