The Last Butterflies

Nick Haddad / Princeton University Press / 264 pages

In The Last of the Butterflies: A Scientist’s Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature, Dr. Nick Haddad explores his journey to becoming a butterfly biologist and discusses how butterflies are the proverbial canary in the coal mine for species decline. The book is divided into eight sections, one each for the six butterfly species or subspecies Haddad deems to be the most imperiled globally, one for a butterfly already lost to extinction—the British large blue—and one for the monarch, which is still relatively common but under threat. 

The six other featured butterflies are likely not those with which most people are familiar: the bay checkerspot, Fender’s blue, crystal skipper, Miami blue, St. Francis’ satyr, and Schaus’ swallowtail. Most of them have very limited ranges and have disappeared from much of their historic habitat. The threats to their survival vary, but all can be traced back to human activity. 

Haddad profiles several of the scientists working to identify, understand, and address the threats faced by these disappearing butterflies and the efforts being undertaken to halt their decline. Throughout, he uses scientific terminology, taking the time to define and explain core principles of conservation biology. For those uninterested in science, these asides could be deemed superfluous, but for the many of us seeking to learn more about the study of wildlife and recent scientific developments, that information is welcome and aids in fully grasping Haddad’s thesis. 

Haddad is also abundantly honest that the plight of these specific butterflies, as well as butterflies generally, leaves him deeply concerned and also, paradoxically, hopeful, given that some of these species have shown remarkable resilience in the face of near destruction. Haddad sums up his experience: “I have discovered that the rarest butterflies in the world are emblematic of the consequences of a range of global environmental changes and of the modern challenges in biodiversity conservation more generally …. By stringing together observations that connect biology to global change to conservation, I have come to know with more intimacy the diversity of life on earth and its need for protections.”