New butterfly experience will help Zoo visitors engage in butterfly conservation 


John Ball Zoo and its conservation partners are releasing endangered butterflies after a successful year of raising them at the Zoo.  

The Great Lakes Rare Butterfly program at John Ball Zoo is a partnership between the Zoo and Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab.  

The partners began working with the Mitchell’s satyr (SAY-DER), a small brown butterfly that is federally endangered, in 2023. After captive rearing and breeding at John Ball Zoo, the butterflies can be released in the wild to bolster remaining populations, so they do not go extinct. The Zoo expects to release 50 of the butterflies this season. 

The Zoo is using Mitchell’s satyr eggs to create a captive insurance population, a breeding group kept in captivity to ensure that the species won't go extinct, even if it disappears in the wild. 

“We are dependent on biodiversity for our food, clean air and water, so John Ball Zoo and our partners are doing what we can to make sure this species persists here in Michigan,” said Bill Flanagan, conservation manager at John Ball Zoo.  

John Ball Zoo works with the Haddad Lab, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on conserving the Mitchell’s satyr, which make their homes in Michigan’s prairie fens. The species is experiencing habitat loss due to pesticide use and the effects of climate change. David Pavlik, research assistant at the Haddad Lab, said the Mitchell’s Satyr is a valuable indicator on the wellbeing of many species. Pavlik helps care for the butterflies at John Ball Zoo. 

“The rapid decline of the Mitchell’s Satyr coincides with the decline of so many other species that use the same habitat in Michigan,” he said. “When the satyrs do poorly, so do many other species. By working to reverse this trend, countless other species will benefit.” 

That’s because as the conservation partners work to save the Mitchell’s satyr, they are helping improve prairie fens for many species that depend on them, including other butterflies and insects, spotted turtles, Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes and more. 

“The Mitchell’s satyr butterfly is one of the most imperiled species in Michigan. Our collaborative team is working to save this butterfly from extinction from all angles, and the captive propagation program at John Ball Zoo is at the center,” said Ashley Cole-Wick, Mitchell’s satyr lead at Michigan Natural Features Inventory. “Their work is pivotal in protecting the Mitchell's satyr and safeguarding its future. Only if we work together as a conservation community will we achieve our goals." 

The butterflies are being released at sites scouted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service where they will be monitored for population growth. Field work has shown that the releases done last year for the species have made an impact. 

"Endangered species recovery is complex and often difficult work. Partners like John Ball Zoo that work on Mitchell's satyr butterfly put forward innovative and determined actions in collaboration with USFWS,” said Kaitlyn Kelly, biologist at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “The ‘head starting’ efforts that John Ball Zoo performs, in partnership with Michigan State University, gives us hope that we can increase healthy population numbers across the landscape to move towards recovery." 

Funding for MSU’s work on the project is provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Threatened and Endangered Species Template. 

John Ball Zoo is also launching a new experience to help guests engage directly with Michigan’s butterfly species and spark interest in their conservation. A new interactive experience called Backyard Butterflies will allow guests to engage with native butterflies while guided by Zoo staff. This new experience is now open daily and is free of charge for all guests. 

Flanagan wants people to know that everyone can get involved in the conservation of butterflies by using native plants in their gardens and landscaping and avoiding the use of neonicotinoids, a common insecticide. John Ball Zoo’s Habitat Hero program offers information on native plants.                                                                                                                   

“You can save countless species in your yard by creating a more habitable space for insects, birds and people,” Flanagan said.  

John Ball Zoo Endangered Butterfly