In the shadow of giant war machines, a tiny, rare butterfly is flourishing. Oddly, experts say, the US military gets the credit. The frosted elfin, which flutters along on a 1-inch wingspan, has found a home at several defense installations because of the way the military manages open spaces, says Robyn Niver, an endangered species biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "Military training requires vast, open areas, so these bases are some of our last great wild places," Niver says. The little brown butterfly has been confirmed at bases in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. The common thread among the bases is the way they manage vegetation through controlled burns, which create the perfect conditions for wild blue lupine and indigo to grow, the frosted elfin caterpillar's two host plants.
Frosted elfins—which have a range from New England to Florida, and as far west as Texas—are not on the federal list of endangered species, but they are headed there, Niver says. Several states already list them as protected, and they have disappeared completely from others, reports the AP. The hope is that what's learned about the populations of frosted elfins—and a whole host of other rare insects, birds, bats, and turtles that thrive on military bases—can be applied outside the base gates. "Our next step now is finding out how we can work with other partners besides the military to try to boost numbers of rare species on other lands as well," Niver says. (Read more butterflies stories.)