Nabokov's Endangered Blues
by Kurt Johnson
page three of three

Endangered Nabokov's Blues in South America

Below are six brief entries about species of Nabokov's Blue butterflies from South America that scientists today consider in danger of extinction. The entries have been adapted by the author from his article "Vladimir Nabokov's Tropical Lepidoptery--a Window on the Past, a Warning about the Future" (Lepidoptera News, September 1999 issue, published by the Association for Tropical Lepidoptera).

left, male, dorsal view
right, female, dorsal view

Endangered Species 1: Pseudolucia benyamini (named by Zsolt Bálint and Kurt Johnson 1994); common name "Dubi's Blue." This is a penny-sized species that is brilliant orange in the females and lustrous blue in the males. The underwings are cryptic brown with a prominent black V-shaped mark on the hindwing. The species was discovered by Dubi Benyamini, an Israeli lepidopterist working in Chile, in 1993. Many of Benyamini's adventures are recounted in the book Nabokov's Blues. Generally, Nabokov called this kind of orange-colored Blue by the species name "collina." "Collina" was one of two species with which he formed his genus Pseudolucia in 1945 in a publication at Harvard University. Indeed, Dubi's Blue looks like collina externally. However, it has a totally different anatomy, something Nabokov himself would have readily recognized if his small series of collina-like specimens from Chile had included any examples. Sadly, P. benyamini has been shown to now be extirpated from its original coastal dune habitats near Santiago, Chile, and the species survives only on limited parcels of military land nearby, which is temporarily out of use. The butterfly feeds on Chorizanthe, a plant of extremely limited distribution in the dune habitats, recalling the fragility of the habitat of Nabokov's Karner Blue in the United States. The Karner Blue depends on small populations of Lupine plants for its survival. It appears that if the small parcels of military land near Santiago, Chile, are ever developed and their dune habitats destroyed, P. benyamini may well go extinct. This is exactly what happened to the United States' only extinct Blue, the Xerces Blue, a California dune species that was destroyed when its dune habitats were cleared to make way for an airfield.

left, male, dorsal view
right, reverse view

Endangered Species 2. Pseudolucia argentina (named by Emilio Balletto in 1993 and also, as P. sirin, Nabokov's Russian nom de plume, by Zsolt Bálint and Kurt Johnson in 1993). Known as the "Argentine Blue" or "Sirin Blue." The species was named from a long series of museum specimens from the Aconcagua National Park. Mt. Aconcagua is the highest mountain in South America. The butterflies are penny-sized with both sexes blue, the males slightly more lustrous. The wing undersurfaces are bronze-orange and the hindwing shows an arc of outstanding black patches. Dubi Benyamini has collected for nearly a decade in Aconcagua park and the butterfly no longer appears to occur there. Its foodplant, Adesmia, is also uncommon, eaten away nearly completely by livestock that are allowed to graze the park, and by the mule trains that support commercial climbing expeditions. Conservationists' fear is that if the butterfly is already extirpated from the park, where there was some nominal protection, it has little hope for survival in adjacent areas where there is no semblance of habitat protection at all. At fault is the common practice in Chile of not restricting grazing, even in protected areas, a policy that seems to thrive on general ignorance about the damage grazing does to minute ecosystems.

left, male, dorsal view
right, reverse view

Endangered Species 3. This "species" is actually a group of species which all look somewhat like Pseudolucia andina, the Andean Blue. (The species was named in 1894 by the pioneer Chilean lepidopterist William Bartlett-Calvert). These Blues are large, nearly quarter-sized. Their upper surfaces are blue-tinged brown and, beneath, the wings are beige with beautiful arrowhead designs along their margins. By means of rearing and interbreeding experiments, Dubi Benyamini has documented that a number of these large Blues, all looking somewhat like Bartlett-Calvert's "andina," are actually separate species, with different foodplants and different lifestyles (what scientists call different "niches"). The conservation problem confronting the andina Group is that their study is already being thwarted by disappearance of their once common populations. In fact, some of Benaymini's research has been stalled by loss of the study populations. The cause is the grazing-off of the butterfly's foodplant, a legume of the genus Astragalus. The main culprit is Chile's ever-expanding rabbit population, a population that is not natural but one descended from domestic rabbits that either escaped into the wild or were intentionally released to spawn an additional food source for the human population of the region. Nabokov never included andina in Pseudolucia because he could not locate any specimens to dissect. Ironically, although recent scientists added the species to Nabokov's original list, it too may soon be impossible to find.

left, male, dorsal view
right, reverse view

Endangered Species 4. Pseudolucia scintilla (named by Emilio Balletto in 1993 and simultaneoulsy by Zsolt Bálint and Kurt Johnson as Pseudolucia kinbote from the narrator of Nabokov's novel Pale Fire); known as the "Flashing Blue" or "Kinbote's Blue." Both Balletto and Bálint and Johnson named their species from museum specimens collected nearly fifty years ago (in 1954). These butterflies are extremely handsome, the upper surfaces silvery-hued and the undersurface with the V-shaped marks typical of the genus magnified into a more suffusive patchlike pattern. Since the early specimens were caught, the species has never again been recorded. Many efforts to find it, by Dubi Benyamini and well-known Chilean lepidopterists Alfredo Ugarte and Luis Peña, have failed. Part of the problem with the survival of P. scintilla appears to be a natural one--the continuing dry climate cycle that has confronted southern South America since the last Ice Age. But man's continued transformation of nearly all of Chile has further reduced wild habitat suitable to this species and drained and rerouted water from many areas for agronomical purposes. Today, there is evidence that P. kinbote is actually a separate species, a possibility that will be nearly impossible to confirm if the species can never again be found. Man may not totally be to blame for the problems with P. scintilla and P. kinbote, but both Blues must be considered endangered nonetheless. In fact the belief that they still exist is simply an assumption by scientists who hope that they simply haven't been at the right place at the right time to find these butterflies.

left, male, dorsal view
right, reverse view

Endangered Species 5. Pseudolucia oligocyanea (named by pioneer Chilean lepidopterist, Emilio Ureta Rojas in 1956). Its common name is the "Tumbre Blue." Like P. scintilla, P. oligocyanea has only been known from a few specimens collected nearly fifty years ago. The buttefly is small and delicate-- only dime-sized, pretty blue above and whitish buff beneath with variously occurring black or brown patches. It has not been seen since its original capture. Its habitats are the desolate uplands of the Antofagasta region of Chile where very few plants grow. The continuing dry spells dominating Chile in recent decades have further worked against this species, as have the catastrophic El Niño years when sudden floods have decimated otherwise parched regions. Given the remote locations of the habitats of P. oligocyanea, it is likely that nature itself is the culprit in its demise. Again, scientists' belief that this species still exists is founded on their assumption that they simply have not been lucky enough to find it in the last fifty years. It too must be considered a threatened species in South America's southern cone.

Update: Dubi Benyamini informed the author by email on December 13, 1999 that he has finally found this long-lost species once again in northern Chile and successfully reared it from egg to adult. This is an important development, but no additional details are known at this time. The relocation of this species strengthens the hope that somewhere in South America's southern cone these poorly known Blues still survive.

left, male, dorsal view
right, reverse view

Endangered Species 6. Pseudolucia sibylla (named by W. J. Kirby when, in 1871, he discovered that the original scientific name for this Blue, proposed by France's Emile Blanchard, was invalid because it had already been used for another butterfly elsewhere in the world!). Commonly P. sibylla is known as the Southern Blue. This Blue is so poorly known in Chile that even the veteran lepidopterists Luis Peña and Alfredo Ugarte collected fewer than ten specimens in their half century-long careers. Dubi Benyamini was lucky enough to rear this Blue from a localized population he found along the border of Argentina and Chile between San Juan and La Serena, respectively. However, his discovery that its foodplant is Adesmia was an immediate cause for conservation concern. This plant is a favorite of wandering livestock in the region, and throughout Benyamini's travels the widespread loss of Adesmia in the wild has been well documented. The Southern Blue is so poorly known that little is understood of its original range or the habitats in which it once thrived. Thus, little can be surmised about how to protect it. When not under siege by livestock, Adesmia was an almost ubiquitous plant. Thus, it is unknown whether P. sibylla once preferred particular restricted habitats or was distributed in a more cosmopolitan way across the wide former range of its foodplant. It too must be considered a threatened species.

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Except as otherwise noted, all butterfly illustrations are from Las Mariposas de Chile (The Butterflies of Chile) by Luis E. Pena G. and Alfredo J. Ugarte P. (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, 1996). Used by permission.


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