Christchurch schoolkids helping save butterfly on the verge of extinction

March 4, 2021
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A student-lead initiative at a Christchurch primary school has helped establish a new home for a native butterfly so rare it does not have a scientific name.

Fifteen boulder copper butterflies, a Canterbury-based relative of the copper butterflies found nationwide, were released into a specially-built habitat at Burnside Primary School on Thursday.

Science teacher Bianca Woyak said the project came about after her Year 3 and 4 science students became “obsessed with insects,” thanks in part to a collectable insects cards promotion by the supermarket Countdown.

Woyak was able to get Animal Planet “bug man” Ruud Kleinpaste in to speak to the students.

“They were really interested in monarch butterflies, and they asked him if there were any butterflies endemic to Canterbury,” she said.

“He went away, and found out about the boulder copper butterfly, which is endemic to Canterbury.”

After hearing about how the species has been affected by habitat loss, Woyak said the children decided they wanted to help bring it back to Christchurch.

After a field trip to McLeans Island where the butterflies live, the youngsters learned their native habitat includes boulders, and that the species sticks close to the native Muehlenbeckia axillaris plant, the lone source of food for its caterpillars.

They got to work on creating a school rock garden last year.

“They’re so excited the butterflies are finally here, they’re over the moon.”

Woyak said the whole curriculum has changed to incorporate the butterflies, and there is a student group dedicated to taking care of them.

“Orana Park has decided it’s going to create a satellite garden too, and the kids will be advising them.”

She said it is great to see students already becoming active scientists.

“The current Burnside school building is actually set to be bulldozed, and the kids are talking about maybe turning the whole site into a really big garden.

“It’ll be fascinating to see what happens next.”

According to the World Wildlife Fund NZ (WWF), which helped fund the project, the boulder copper butterfly used to be abundant across Canterbury.

But their numbers drastically declined as their habitat disappeared, and introduced wasps found them to be a good source of protein.

The McLeans Island site is home to the last known Canterbury population, a WWF spokeswoman said.

“Scientists are still learning about native butterflies in New Zealand and only just figured out that this tiny taonga is a separate species from other copper butterflies, so it doesn’t even have its own name.”

On top of continuing to care for the new population, the students will work with scientists to officially describe the Canterbury species, and give it its own Latin name.

“With the students’ help these little butterflies have a chance to thrive again.”

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