The whine of jet engines fills the air. Hangars and runways stretch to the horizon.
But somewhere here amid the wilderness of concrete that is Los Angeles International Airport lives a tiny butterfly that's found almost nowhere else on Earth.
On a recent winter’s day, the only winged creatures visible in the airport known locally as LAX are giant airplanes.
Buried beneath buckwheat shrubs near the end of the runways, though, are countless chrysalises of the endangered El Segundo blue butterfly, which will slumber through the jets’ roar until summer.
“As long as it has its buckwheat, it can eat, grow, survive, and it’s happy,” says LAX environmental supervisor Erica Blyther as she surveys the airport’s butterfly habitat.
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That a rare butterfly lives at the nation’s third busiest airport is surprising. Confounding experts even more, the blue is making a comeback. (See "It's a Good Year for Monarchs, But More Butterflies Are On the Brink.")
New colonies have popped up far from the airport, defying expert opinion that the butterfly is a lousy traveler. The insect has overcome noise, foul odors, traffic—everything a butterfly would seem to hate—to retake some of the ground it lost to development decades ago.
Last summer, an estimated 25,000 adults fluttered around the airport despite the state's historic drought, says Richard Arnold, a consultant entomologist who has monitored the butterflies at LAX and a nearby refinery.
Over the last decade, he says, the airport’s colony has numbered as high as 143,000.
The butterfly, roughly as big as a U.S. quarter and with a similar metallic shine, is “definitely a survivor in the urban matrix,” says Eric Porter of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees their recovery. And that, he adds, is “not the norm.”
Though scientists agree the El Segundo blue is a success story, they don't agree on why. Maybe the blue is thriving because it needs just one kind of plant, unlike other butterflies that need many. Or maybe the mild climate of its native landscape is a factor.
But one thing's for sure—it doesn't mind the chaos of human coexistence.
Tolerant though it is, the butterfly’s taste for beachfront real estate almost led to its extinction.
Before the construction crews moved in, the blue occupied sand dunes that stretched for a dozen miles along the Pacific Ocean. It was a paradise of sunshine and seaside views, irresistible to humans and butterflies alike.
“Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Torrance,” says Travis Longcore of the University of Southern California, listing municipalities built atop the dunes in the 20th century. “It’s the playground of coastal Los Angeles.”
By the time scientists recognized the blue as its own subspecies in the 1970s, its dunes had all but vanished, and so had the butterfly. It was put on the U.S. endangered species list in 1976.
Though the butterfly may not mind jet engines and crowds, it is finicky about one thing: buckwheat.
California has many kinds of wild buckwheat, but the blue's life cycle relies exclusively on one species, known as coast buckwheat or seacliff buckwheat.
Caterpillars eat the seeds, adults eat the nectar, females lay their eggs on the flowers in the summer, and the chrysalises nestle beneath the buckwheat in the winter.
This preference also makes the El Segundo “really easy” to help, Longcore says: “You just have to make sure there’s lots of seacliff buckwheat.” (See "How Your Backyard Can Save Butterflies.")
Against the Odds
That wasn’t so clear in the mid-1970s, when the blue's last sizable stronghold was a bedraggled strip of dunes near the end of LAX’s runways.
By the mid-1980s, LAX hosted less than a thousand butterflies.
Knowing that the butterflies prefer seacliff buckwheat, scientists saw to it that buckwheat was planted and non-native plants ripped out. The butterflies did the rest, rebounding in huge numbers.
El Segundo blues have also prospered in a small preserve on the grounds of a nearby oil refinery. (See "Why Do Butterflies Have Such Vibrant Colors and Patterns?")
But what really has the butterfly’s fans aflutter is the tiny insect’s reappearance in places it had supposedly deserted forever.
Over the last decade or so, it has appeared at new sites on the Palos Verde Peninsula (map), nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the airport. It settled into a recently restored strip of land between bike paths and parking lots on Redondo Beach. It crossed a heavily trafficked commuter road to get to some tempting buckwheat at a beach near LAX.
“Imagine a little butterfly the size of your thumbnail trying to cross this road,” Arnold marvels. “It’s not impossible, but it’s still pretty remarkable.”
The butterflies have also proved naysayers wrong on the edge of a residential development a few miles north of the airport, where a patch of dunes escaped being turned into houses.
No one had seen an El Segundo blue here for years, and “we had been told they wouldn’t come back,” says Lisa Fimiani, head of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, which works to protect the remnant dunes and surrounding wetlands.
She planted the dunes with buckwheat anyway. The butterflies came back.
“Everywhere we put in buckwheat, we’ve got El Segundo blues,” Fimiani says, walking near the low shrubs with a row of apartment buildings in the distance. (See more amazing butterfly pictures.)
The butterflies’ spread north and south of the airport is “super encouraging,” adds the Fish and Wildlife Service's Porter.
He’s in charge of other rare insects, but the El Segundo blue “is the only species I’m aware of that seems to be expanding its range in this area.”
Friends of the butterflies dream big.
Fimiani, for one, wants to plant more buckwheat to sustain even more El Segundo blues.
Dozens of acres of land next to beach parking lots and sidewalks are suitable butterfly habitat, if only they were provisioned with buckwheat, Longcore says.
“We could have [El Segundo blues] all the up and down the coast,” he says.
Seems doable for this little urban butterfly that could.