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Controlled Burns Threaten Rare Florida Butterflies

University of Florida research has found the state's rare frosted elfin butterfly population is threatened by controlled burns if those fires are not managed properly and holistically. Credit: Matt Thom, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
University of Florida research has found the state's rare frosted elfin butterfly population is threatened by controlled burns if those fires are not managed properly and holistically. Credit: Matt Thom, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
July 6, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Controlled burns could wipe out rare north Florida butterflies if they're not done with insect habitat in mind, according to a recent University of Florida study.

The research found certain butterflies need fire because they feed on plants that only survive when flames weed out competing vegetation.

Lead study author Matt Thom with the U.S. Department of Agriculture says if fires get too big, all of the butterflies' cocoons, which are buried near the soil surface, will burn up.

"It's this kind of strange trade-off," says Thom. "Fire can be a positive thing for the host plants, but it also can be bad, detrimental to the populations of the organisms."

The study looked at the frosted elfin butterfly, which lives in Ralph E. Simmons State Forest near the Georgia border. It found that the caterpillars in the cocoon stage don't burrow far enough into the soil to survive the flames.

Thom says it's all in how much land is burned at one time.

"You need to burn these certain forests at certain intervals," he says. "You know, too frequent a fire, or a fire that actually burns though the whole, entire area that the butterflies occupy, would be a pretty bad thing."

Thom recommends controlled burns only be done on a rotation basis and in smaller, subdivided areas, so butterflies in the unburned area can repopulate the forest and maintain their natural balance between life and death.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - FL