Lepidopterist from UK coming to Northland to study rare butterfly

By Lindy Laird -
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The endangered forest ringlet butterfly. Photo / Melissa Hutchison
The endangered forest ringlet butterfly. Photo / Melissa Hutchison

A beautiful, rarely seen, highly endangered butterfly is causing such a flutter a lepidopterist from Sir David Attenborough's Butterfly Conservation in the UK is heading to Northland to study it.

Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust have just had reports of sightings of the forest ringlet butterfly in the Puketi Forest and near Kaikohe, two of only a handful of New Zealand locations where it is known to still survive.

"The forest ringlet is quite unique in that it's only found in this country, and it's the only one of its species in the world. It really is a New Zealand icon,'' said Jacqui Knight, founder of Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust.

The orange, black and white forest ringlet, also called Dodonidia Helmsii or Helms butterfly, is on the brink of extinction but the reason why the population has reached critically low numbers is a matter of speculation.

In the 1970's, the butterflies were frequently seen throughout New Zealand's forests but a massive decline was observed around the 1990s.

The forest ringlet and its precarious balance has sparked the interest of Steve Wheatley, from Sir David Attenborough's Butterfly Conservation.

Mr Wheatley will come to Northland in the summer, when the forest ringlet is known to breed, to carry out critical field research.

He will work with New Zealand entomologists in researching causes of decline, the variables in different populations, and larval food plants to determine a preference for particular hosts or predator insects such as wasps.

Ms Knight said people seldom see the forest ringlet as it lives high in the canopy.

About the size of a cabbage white butterfly, it was once common throughout the country but is now found in only a few places, among them Northland, the hills behind Days Bay on Wellington Harbour and the Denniston Plateau in Westland.

To fundraise for Mr Wheatley's research and travel expenses, Moths and Butterflies NZ has started a Givealittle page called The Forest Ringlet Butterfly Project.

The trust is also screening the 3D film Flight of the Butterfly next Tuesday evening at Kerikeri's Cathay Cinema.

Tickets can only be bought through the trust's website: mb.org.nz/movie

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