Skip to main content
Original Issue

Its fate is up in the air

It's the El Segundo Blue against the Los Angeles International Airport—and the butterfly has friends in high places

In Kipling's The Butterfly That Stamped, King Solomon overhears a butterfly tell his wife that if he stamped his foot the king's palace and garden would vanish in a clap of thunder. When Solomon has stopped laughing, he asks the butterfly why he told such a fib. The butterfly tells Solomon that he had been quarreling with his wife and had told her that to put her in her place.

Well, in El Segundo, Calif., not in the High and Far-Off Times but quite recently, a butterfly in effect stamped and, as a result, the plans of a mighty airport are on the verge of vanishing. And, O my Best Beloved, it is no laughing matter.

The trio of scientists crawling on their hands and knees over the El Segundo Sand Dunes lying between the ocean and the runways of the Los Angeles International Airport paid little heed to the jetliners screaming overhead. Julian P. Donahue, assistant curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, intently sifted sand through his hands as he searched for the-inch-long pupae of a butterfly known as the El Segundo Blue. Nearby were a couple of his museum colleagues, Dr. Robert L. Bezy, a herpetologist who had already unearthed a wormlike species of legless lizard, Anniella pulchra, and Dr. Chris Davidson, a botanist, busily looking for other unusual animals and plants.

Watching them with mounting fascination was Maurice Z. Laham, the airport's environmental planner. Only an hour before, at lunch with the scientists, Laham had scoffed at the "eco-freaks" who were interested in the curious life found in the dunes. By now, however, he was caught up in the thrill of discovery in sands that appeared barren to the untrained eye, and when Donahue came up with a rare scarab beetle, which he popped into a collecting jar, Laham exclaimed, "Hey, this is fun!"

The outing on the dunes was an unexpectedly convivial gathering of potential antagonists. On one side are the scientists and nature lovers. On the other are officials of the airport, which had spent $44 million to acquire the dunes for possible expansion, only to learn that because of a little blue butterfly the $44 million may be money down the drain.

The El Segundo Blue is not just another butterfly. It is an endangered species—perhaps several hundred survive—and the only place it lives is in the El Segundo Sand Dunes. It was one of six butterflies, all found in California, that were officially declared endangered last June by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the first insects to be so designated under the terms of the Endangered Species Act passed by Congress in 1973. Butterflies were chosen first because they are surely the best loved insects.

Scientifically, the El Segundo Blue is a subspecies known as Shijimiaeoides battoides allyni. The jaw-breaking generic name is of Japanese origin because the other members of the genus are found in Japan and Korea. It is possible that the ancestors of the El Segundo Blue made their way to Southern California by fluttering like a knuckleball around the rim of the Pacific basin. The subspecies name of allyni was bestowed in honor of Arthur C. Allyn, a former owner of the Chicago White Sox and a butterfly buff who maintains The Allyn Museum of Entomology in Sarasota, Fla. Allyn put up money to study the species, and it was described by Oakley Shields of the University of California at Davis in the Bulletin of The Allyn Museum in September 1975. (Given Allyn's interest in genetic variants, it is said that he came by his ownership of the White Sox naturally.)

The El Segundo Blue belongs to a large subfamily known as the Blues, or the Plebejinae. Worldwide in distribution, but especially abundant in the Northern Hemisphere, the Blues have attracted lepidopterists because of the challenges they pose in identification and classification. Vladimir Nabokov was a research fellow at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard in the 1940s, and he did extraordinary work there rearranging the classification of the Orange-margined Blues, mainly by noting differences in male genitalia. "The thrill of gaining information about certain structural mysteries in these Blue butterflies is perhaps more pleasurable than any literary achievement," Nabokov once remarked. Later, while teaching literature at Cornell, he was the first to describe a rare subspecies, the Karner Blue, Lycaeides melissa samuelis, from a population he studied near Albany, N.Y.

The adult male of the El Segundo Blue butterfly has a wingspan less than an inch wide. The upper side of the wings is a vivid purplish blue, while the underside is whitish with checkerboardlike black spots. The female, whose wings are brown on the upper side with an orange stripe near the margin of the hind wing, lays her eggs in the flower heads of a low-lying shrub, the coastal buckwheat, Eriogonum parvifolium, where they hatch in a few days. The caterpillars feed on the seeds and flowers of the buckwheat and complete their development by September, when they turn into pupae. While in the caterpillar stage, they secrete a fluid known as honeydew through slits on their backs. The honeydew has no known biological function other than to serve as tasty food for ants, Iridomyrmex humilis, which tend the caterpillars like shepherds and presumably protect them from insect predators.

The pupae, which do not spin cocoons, lie dormant in the sand beneath the buckwheat until the following July or August when they emerge as adults. These live no longer than two weeks and rarely venture more than a few hundred feet from their birthplace. During this time, they mate and feed upon the nectar of the buckwheat flowers.

Originally the El Segundo Sand Dunes covered an area of about 36 square miles. However, housing and other development, which now plaster the coastline, have reduced the sand-dune habitat to a mere 245 acres. Two of these acres are on refinery grounds owned by Standard Oil of California. In 1975 a couple of amateur lepidopterists, Jeannine Oppewall, a writer-researcher for designer Charles Eames, and Dr. John Emmel, a physician and coauthor of The Butterflies of Southern California, collected adult Blues on the site. Oppewall suggested to Standard Oil that the company fence the two acres as a butterfly sanctuary, and the company gladly did so, at a cost of $4,000.

The adjacent 243 acres, by far the more important habitat, now belong to the airport, and turning the acreage into a sanctuary is not exactly what its officials have had in mind. In 1960, when jet noise began to irritate many home owners in the dunes, the airport started acquiring property. All told, it spent $44 million to buy up the land and raze more than 200 houses.

After Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles International Airport is the busiest in the world, handling 27 million passengers a year. Before 1990 the airport hopes to handle 40 million passengers annually. Even so, the 243 acres of sand dunes are not critical to airport expansion; in fact, the airport is thinking of turning most of the area into a mass recreation complex with a golf course as the set piece. Laham says, "The airport is a necessary public service and creates considerable environmental degradation of the surrounding community. Here we have an opportunity to pay back a little, and it's a wonderful gesture."

The gesture is not so wonderful to many. In 1972, at the request of Los Angeles County, a committee of scientists from the Natural History Museum and the Southern California Academy of Sciences placed the sand dunes at the top of the list of "critical" habitats in the county demanding "immediate action," and when the airport raised the possibility of expansion the Federal Aviation Administration requested that an environmental impact study be conducted.

In 1975, the California Department of Food and Agriculture asked Donahue to evaluate 24 species of California butterfly being considered for federal protection. With the assistance of 18 experts, including Paul Ehrlich, the "population bomb" biologist (who developed some of his theories while pursuing his original calling as a lepidopterist), Donahue recommended that the El Segundo Blue and several other species be declared endangered. Governor Jerry Brown approved the recommendations and the state forwarded them to the Interior Department, which last June ruled the six species endangered.

The California Coastal Zone Conservation Commission, which has jurisdiction over land lying within 1,000 yards of the mean high-tide level, also has leverage and has informed Laham that the public interest would best be served by letting the sand dunes revert to a natural state.

A fortnight ago, the Interior Department proposed to have the airport's 243 acres and Standard Oil's two acres declared critical habitat for the El Segundo Blue. Under the law, Interior does not have the right to condemn the land in question, but it can prevent any federal agency, such as the FAA, from funding, authorizing or carrying out any action that could jeopardize critical habitat. Governor Brown has 90 days to reply to Interior, while the airport, Los Angeles County, scientists, lepidopterists and other interested parties have 60 days.

There is no doubt the scientists will fight if they must. After exploring the dunes with Laham, Donahue remarked, "The entire area is worth saving, and we're going to do everything we can."

Happily, Los Angeles International may give in with grace and allow the little blue butterfly to maintain its fragile link with life, to have its two weeks in the sun. As Clifton A. Moore, the general manager of the giant airport, said to Donahue before the expedition on the dunes, "We're interested in protecting all forms of flight. Actually, we're interested in hybridizing these insects so they can carry 450 passengers."


Julian Donahue scouts the disputed El Segundo Dunes for pupae of the endangered butterfly.