Prisoners pitch in to save endangered butterfly


At the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Belfair, Washington, inmates are helping to save the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha taylori). Under the supervision of guards and graduate students, a small group of prisoners is breeding the beautiful orange-and-white insects in a greenhouse outside the prison. They have even carried out research to show what plants the butterfly prefers to lay its eggs on — information that will be crucial for boosting its dwindling numbers. 

These efforts are part of the Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP), the brainchild of Nalini Nadkarni of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “A lot of her work is about coming down from the ivory tower and involving under-served audiences in science,” says Dennis Aubrey, a student who works in the checkerspot initiative. He spoke about the project at the 2012 Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon.

The SPP works with prisons throughout Washington, and treats the inmates as collaborators rather than labourers. They apply for the positions and get training, education and a small wage. Together, they have helped to conserve endangered butterflies, frogs, flowering plants and moss.

Prisons may seem to be an unorthodox location for conservation work, but Carri LeRoy, project co-director of the SPP, says: “There’s a lot of clean, controlled space, and people with time on their hands, looking to do something valuable and change their lives.”

“Most people are in the prison yard talking about who did them wrong,” says Aubrey. “Then, all of a sudden, guards will tell us they hear people saying, ‘Hey did you see how that moss was growing?’ ”

The women in the checkerspot project have already reintroduced more than 800 of the butterflies into the wild, and raised more than 3,600 caterpillars for next year’s release. The Taylor’s checkerspot is found in just four small populations in Washington and Oregon, and it now lays its eggs on plantain, an introduced species. No one knew what the butterfly’s original host plants were. The inmates found out by allowing the adults to choose between three candidates and showed that they prefer to lay eggs on two native species — the harsh paintbrush and golden paintbrush — rather than the exotic plantain.

Written By: Ed Yong
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  1. Rumour has it that two of the inmates were so succesful in their scientific pursuits that they’ve escaped with the help of five trained butterflies. In their cell plans have been found to rob an unknown bank by means of said butterflies and at least two new recruiits from the caterpillar reserve.

    Seriously though, it’s a great project. The fact that the results are the talk of the yard among those participating is such a good sign. Means it’s not only about the wage and the killing of time, but that these women also appreciate the significance of what they do. I imagine it also does wonders for their self-esteem.

  2. Interesting to see a scientific approach in the correctional system as opposed to a religious one. No doubt the women have been empowered by their experiences. I can’t help but think of metamorphosis not only for the butterflies but also for the women fortunate enough to have participated in this program and learned of the “magic of reality.”

  3. I hope that they are also teaching classes and workshops on science – basic biology, ecology, etc. The prisoners should get some info as to what they are doing. It would be tragic if these inmates had a false sense of being a scientist when they get out and may not even be qualified to work for a garden center. I worked somewhere and occasionally we would get a portfolio of designs (hand done at the level of an eighth or ninth grader) with a grandiose plans for being a great designer when he would get out of prison. Self-esteem without skill and realistic expectations is a bad mix.

    Putting this aside, this is a great idea. That checkered butterfly is beautiful; I’m glad the life of this species is extended because of this program.

  4.  I read your comment and the old fool has, apparently, said something new. But I’d agree that it’s trivia compared to the butterfly story.

  5. I see. Ah well we’ll see how it plays out. If it actually means something we’ll read something about it here sooner or later anyway.

  6. This story really makes my day.  Prisoners train dogs, get soothed by cats, work with troubled horses, and now citizen science.  Awesome.

    Nature Deficit Disorder affects everyone; as the article says, this is a win win situation.
    Frogs, butterflies, prairie plants – more please, spread the idea!

  7.  Goodness me. Think of all the subjects this site is NOT discussing: the war in Afghanistan, the wars and starvation in Africa, the coming of the asteroid Apophis, the explosion of jellyfish in the oceans, the great Pacific garbage patch.
    We’d better get busy if we’re to establish our bone fides as moral-and socially conscious atheists!.
    Science in prisons, hmpf. What has THAT got to do with us, eh?

  8.  As a fiction writer, I see enormous potential here for a good story. Something to do with a couple of unusually clever prisoners (perhaps jailed unjustly for a crime someone else committed) carry on a secondary experiment without the knowledge of the project leaders. Eventually they devise some fabulous result, like butterflies which exude a soporific chemical, and use it on their guards to escape. Then, after escaping, they catch the real culprit, who turns out to be some powerful politician, and thus they are exonerated. And become biologists. There should be a puppy somewhere in the story too.

  9. A reminder: this thread is about prisoners, science and butterflies. Please don’t post on other topics here.  Thank you. The mods

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