05 February 2022

The Blues

Although with a broader focus, we made four licensed trips to Cuba in the early 2000s that included documenting insects. There are too many interesting things to recount here, but one of several publications that came out of those trips was this one:

Craves, J. A. 2004. Are there populations of the Miami blue, Cyclargus thomasi bethunebakeri, in Cuba? News of the Lepidopterists’ Society 46(2): 40, 43.

Public domain photo of Miami Blue from Wikipedia

For those of you not familiar with this butterfly, it is a federally endangered subspecies in Florida. At the time of our observation and the others reported in this short note, the distribution of this subspecies was not entirely understood. Its status in Cuba was especially murky, due to the travel restrictions and general difficulty in scientific collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba. An announcement of a new online exhibit on climate change and the Miami Blue prompted me to catch up on what was going on with this insect.

The journal Insecta Mundi, published by the Center for Systematic Entomology, had a long paper that covered the distribution and taxonomy of the Miami Blue and its close relatives from soup to nuts: Are Miami blues in Cuba? A review of the genus Cyclargus Nabokov (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae) with implications for conservation management.

In the introduction of the paper, the authors outline history of the lack of consensus on the taxonomy and distribution of these species, in particular Cyclargus ammon (Nickerbean Blue) and C. thomasi (species-level Miami Blue), and their presence (or not) on Cuba. They outline some history of C. thomasi on Cuba and write,

"Craves (2004) also published photographs and reported on the occurrence of C. thomasi, tentatively identified as C. thomasi bethunebakeri, from locations in three Cuban provinces: Matanzas, Ciego de Avila, and Santiago de Cuba. These sources, together with anonymous eye-witness accounts, are mentioned in the Federal Register (USFWS 2012)."

The paper went on to describe a thorough study of museum collections and speciments from all over the Caribbean and, importantly, a recent series of specimens taken at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo. It included extensive documentation of wing patterns and genitalia dissections, and DNA barcoding.

To make a long story short, if it's not too late, they concluded that C. thomasi (and C. ammon) occurs on Cuba, but that the COI haplotype (the DNA "barcoding" gene) of the Guantanamo C. thomasi is closest to C. t. noeli, the subspecies that is found on Hispaniola. They note that other haplotypes may be found elsewhere on Cuba, and that those of the Havana region would be of special interest as they are closer to Florida. I've included links to Google Maps in the quote above to the two approximate locations where I observed these butterflies. They're farther west than Guantanamo but not at the closest points to Florida.

It's always good to find out that our small discoveries and publications have been worthwhile or at least notable to other researchers. This one in particular is special, because the photos in the 2004 publication were taken by our dear friend Steve Habbel, whom we lost in January 2020 to brain cancer. We miss you Dr. Steve, but your memory and work lives on.