Updated: Jun 8
Earlier this spring, I learned in an unexpected way about an obscure disease called 4H Leukodystrophy. It is an inherited genetic disorder that disrupts the body's ability to create the protective sheaths that normally surround nerve cells in our brain and spinal cord. Without these protective sheaths, the nervous system doesn't function normally and many profound physical, mental and developmental difficulties arise. No cure for the disease is known.
You may be wondering why I'm writing about a little-known human genetic disorder in a blog about Oregon's butterflies. Stay with me! It turns out that these topics are very much connected. But first, I need to lay some groundwork by sharing a little about a group of blue butterflies in the Pacific Northwest that has long puzzled experts.
The blues in question are in the genus Celastrina, which we commonly call Azures, and this genus includes our common and widespread Echo Azure (Celastrina echo). We used to call it the Spring Azure, until the species was taxonomically split in two, giving us westerners the Echo Azure and leaving the Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) to the east side of the continent. The Echo Azure has a very light ground color underneath, and all the dark gray markings are relatively small and tidy. You'll see shortly why those identification details are important.
Over the past 20 years, lepidopterists in the Northwest have puzzled over what appeared to be a highly variable form of Azure that some considered to be a sub-species of the Echo Azure. They've been found in British Columbia and in Washington and Oregon and are a duskier gray ground color below, and while the typical Azure markings are present, they are larger and darker, and often augmented by large, dark irregular gray or black patches. It has often been found flying with Echo Azure, but often in smaller numbers.
In 2001 to 2003, Andy Warren studied populations of this "form" across nine Oregon counties, mostly east of the Cascade Crest. He pondered the possibility that it represented an as-yet-undescribed species and tentatively referred to it as Celastrina nigrescens. A third Celastrina also occurs in BC and Montana, called the Lucia Azure (Celastrina lucia), which bears some resemblance to this highly variable "form" that lepidopterists were finding throughout the Northwest. Some populations of Celastrina in the state of Washington were thought to be the Lucia Azure, which added to the complexity of the Celastrina picture in the region.
Over the past several years, the identity of these dusky, variable Celastrina blues confused and intrigued lepidopterists in Washington and surrounding regions, leading to an effort to shed more light on just what they are. All of the puzzle pieces finally came together in the last two years, resulting in the conclusion that this highly variable "form" is indeed a new species. Thanks to the work of Caitlin LaBar, Jon Pelham, Norbert Kondla, their colleagues and their army of citizen scientists, we now have answers to that Celastrina puzzle.
At the end of April 2022, Caitlin, Jon and Norbert (from Alberta) released the official paper describing the new species. The paper clarified that the new species occurs in both Oregon and Washington, as well as in southern British Columbia and the Rockies in Idaho, Montana and SW Alberta, and that the Lucia Azure (Celastrina lucia) does not occur in Oregon or Washington.
In the "Etymology" section of the paper, the author's explained the name they had chosen for the new species: Asher's Blue (Celastrina asheri). As I read who Asher was and why they named the butterfly after him, I got a bit teary-eyed. I felt proud of my colleagues for their choice of names. Asher is an 8-year-old boy, who has 4H Leuko- dystrophy. From my reading about the disease, I know it is a profoundly difficult disease for him and his family, which is why this quote from the species description paper was so moving:
"His perseverance and kind heart inspire everyone around him, bringing rays of sunshine into the daily struggle of living with a disease that has no cure. Asher loves blue, which is also the representative color of Leukodystrophy, and he loves spending time outdoors, especially in the mountains. In naming this butterfly Celastrina asheri, Asher’s Blue, it is our wish to bring joy to Asher and his family and help promote awareness of this disease with the hope that one day a cure will be found."
I warmly congratulate Caitlin, Norbert and Jon on their excellent taxonomic study, sleuthing work, survey organizing, data management, and especially for their good-hearted naming choice.
When I received the email from Caitlin announcing the formal species designation, I was immediately seized with a strong urge go find and photograph Asher's Blue as soon as the droughtiest-turned-rainiest spring weather would allow. I said aloud to the empty room: "Asher, I'm going to find your blue!" The opportunity came the week before Memorial Day with a favorable weather forecast, and I headed towards central Oregon to see what I could see.
I had read in Andy Warren's book (Butterflies of Oregon, Their Taxonomy, Distribution and Biology), that he had found them in May 2003 along the Metolius River and along creeks in the western Ochoco Mountains. I immediately went to my own records to see when my past visits to the Metolius and to the Ochocos had occurred. Somehow, I had managed to go to these areas only before or after, but never during, the flight period of Asher's Blue. So this butterfly had been almost in my backyard (2 hours away), yet I had never seen it!
With Andy's excellent documentation of where and when he'd found this butterfly, this was one of the easiest species to add to my website. I went straight to the Metolius River, which was already one of my favorite sites. I pulled into the little parking area next to the bridge, grabbed my camera and binoculars, and walked not more than 50 yards along the river trail, when I spied a puddle club of blues. Through my binos, I could see they were mostly Echo Azures, but within seconds, I spotted one Asher's Blue in the group! What I didn't realized at that moment was that over my three days on the Metolius virtually every puddle club of blues would have just one or two Asher's Blues, and nearly all the rest would be Echo Azures. It was curious how consistent that pattern was. When I re-read Warren's account of his visit there in 2003, he had seen the same pattern in the puddle clubs.
After getting some satisfactory photos of puddling Asher's Blues along the river that first day, I decided to head east into the Ochoco Mountains to search there, where Andy had also found them in 2003. For years, I have been constantly following the footsteps of Andy Warren, and this trip was no exception! That same afternoon, I headed east, planning to camp in the Ochocos overnight and search along several streams the following day. After an hour searching for a suitable camp site, I settled in for the night to the sound of gobbling wild turkeys and tooting northern pygmy owls and wondered what kind of weather I would have in the morning.
In the morning, luckily, there was just enough sun to get temps up to the low 60's, which I hoped would be adequate for Celastrina blues. I devoured up my bowl of sweet potato oatmeal, and packed up for a day of stream walks. As I drove the side roads in the western Ochocos towards my first search site, I soon saw that almost no butterflies were flying at mid-morning, not even cold- tolerant Azures. Not what I'd hoped for. I stayed the course, however, and visited six different streams over several hours, and found a whopping total of three butterflies: 2 Mourning Cloaks and 1 California Tortoiseshell. Definitely not what I'd hoped for! After a couple moments of pondering, it began to make sense that the higher elevation of these streams combined with the cold wet weather in preceding weeks had delayed butterfly emergence far behind what Warren had seen in 2003, and behind what I'd just seen on the Metolius. My hypothesis was supported by the delayed development of native shrubs and wildflowers in the areas. They appeared to be just barely beginning to wake up from their winter slumbers. I guessed it might be a couple weeks before spring really arrived up there.
As the morning progressed, the cloud cover in the Ochocos deepened, and the temperature dropped slightly. I gazed longingly to the west, where glorious blue skies appeared to be over the Metolius River. My first thought was "I should be over there!" My second thought was "do I really want to chase that sucker hole?" I had learned the term "sucker hole" for ephemeral patches of blue in a cloudy sky that weren't where I was. Oh so great is the temptation to make a mad dash to get in that lovely sunny spot that must be "just over there." My experience told me that those chase-inducing patches of blue, more often than not, are gone by the time I get there or not where they appeared to be.
Sucker hole or not, I decided my chances were better at lower elevation and closer to the Cascade Crest, where the drought-driving rain shadow might work to my (short term) benefit. This time it worked! I arrived on the Metolius in a little more than an hour, greeted by sun, very thin clouds and temperatures in the upper 70's.
There I met a friendly local fisherman named Gary, and after a necessarily one-sided chat about the challenges of fly-fishing for trout on the Metolius, he asked what I was up to. He seemed genuinely interested in my search for this new butterfly species, and he told me about a couple spots along the river where he had recently seen a lot of blues. I was impressed that he'd noticed the butterflies at all, let alone remembered where he'd seen blues in particular. It was about 3 pm when I set out to search along the east bank of the river, where the afternoon sun had warmed everything nicely.
It was an enjoyable river-side ramble as I continued to find an Asher's Blue here and there, while new species were showing up in the warmth of the afternoon. I had Pacuvius Duskywing, Dreamy Duskywing and Persius Duskywing in quick succession, followed by Juniper/Cedar Hairstreak, Brown Elfin, Western Pine Elfin and Hoary Comma. I always get a charge out of seeing a diversity of species, so this elevated my spirits even more.
Gary had told me about a spot further down the river that he called "the swamp." His moniker made it sound like a large area, but upon my arrival, it turned out to be only about 20 feet by 20 feet, situated between the trail and the river. However, the small size didn't discourage the many butterflies congregating there, where boggy ground and wet, decaying dead grass attracted Duskywings, Two-banded Checkered Skippers, Silvery Blues, Echo Azures, Asher's Blues, Pale Swallowtails and California Tortoiseshells. I was so enjoying the butterflies, the pleasant weather and the relative low numbers of people, that I decided to stay another night, and make a third search the next day if the weather was favorable.
The next morning at 6 am when I poked my head out of my tent, I couldn't help but smile--the skies were almost completely clear. I felt happy and optimistic as I made breakfast and listened to the Cassin's Vireos, Chipping Sparrows and Western Tanagers singing in the conifers around my camp site. I allowed myself a slow morning while I waited for the day (and the butterfly action) to warm up. When an Echo Azure flew through my campsite, I decided it was time to head down to the river's edge.
This time I searched the west bank of the river since I now had morning sun from the east. There were larger puddle groups of Azures now, and while there were still only one or two Asher's Blues in each group, the numbers of Echo Azures swelled, and a few Silvery Blues joined the party. I continued photographing mostly Asher's Blues, and counted butterflies as I walked. I added Northern Cloudywing, Green Comma, Juba Skipper, and Mylitta Crescent to an already nice list of species.
Warren's book and the species description paper described Asher's Blue as having highly variable ventral markings, and my experience on the Metolius bore that out. The four Asher's Blues presented here fairly illustrate the range of variation I found. The collection of images in the description paper shows that the variation in ventral hindwing markings diverges even further than what I saw. My visit to the Metolius piqued my curiosity about other Asher's Blues populations in Oregon, and I began to formulate a plan to explore the populations of Asher's Blue further east, in the Blue Mountains, Elkhorns and in the Wallowas later in the year.
As I read it, the story of Asher's Blue has many layers. To me, the decades of not knowing the taxonomic status of these butterflies, the perseverance of many scientists and citizen scientists to find answers, the tag team of people that contributed over the years to the effort, and the weaving of this inspiring young boy into the picture, all speak of the importance of our relatedness. It speaks to the ways in which people build relationships with nature when have access to it and opportunities to learn about it. Some people get deeply interested in fish, and learn all about where they live, what they eat and when and how to catch them. Others become interested in birds or butterflies or fungi or flowers or dragonflies. Their growing knowledge further fuels their curiosity as they venture out more into nature to see, to feel, to hear and to learn. These kinds of relationships between humans and non-human life and land are so important to the survival over time of we humans and the complex living system that we depend on. We need to be connected to nature and nature needs us to be connected to it.
In a similar way, we humans need to be connected to each other--to learn about each other, listen to each other, accept each other, include each other and care about each other. This kind of relatedness, like that which I imagine inspired Caitlin, Jon and Norbert to bring Asher into this story, is needed more and more in our world--the knitting together of humans to humans, and of communities of humans to nature.
I'll likely never meet Asher, but now he is part of my world. And now Luecodystrophy is also part of my world. I read some of the stories from families dealing with this disease on the website of the Yaya Foundation. The foundation is named after a little girl with 4H Luecodystrophy, and was started by her parents. It was heart-wrenching to read what these families are having to deal with on a daily basis. My thoughts diverged to some of the many other fierce challenges we humans are encountering right now. Many of us are finding it heart-wrenching to read about what Ukrainians are facing daily in their war-torn country, or about what African Americans are experiencing in a country where systemic racism and anti-blackness continues to impact their daily lives in painful and traumatic ways.
At times, I have seen in myself a tendency to become so focused on my love of butterflies and birds that it would begin to shield me from being aware of the pain that many other people in the world are currently experiencing. I suspect other people see this tendency in themselves as well. Meanwhile our economy seems to be largely based on selling us distractions from what is tragic and painful in ourselves and in our world. In these times of such worldwide turmoil and change, it is a source of comfort to escape into nature and its creatures. I know because I have done this over the past couple years of COVID. However, I recognize that I have advantages and privileges that not everyone has, and that these allow me to put the pain and challenges of others out of my mind. Many other people, like Asher and his family, the people of Ukraine, and most African Americans, can't just ignore their hardships and their pain--it is daily life for them.
I love the story of Asher's Blue because, to me, it points to our possibility of being aware of our impacts (positive and negative) on both nature and people, and how we can make a difference through working together to make a positive impact on both. More of that! We need to actively weave a culture that enables us to work together to nurture the health and strength of both our human culture and the living natural system, both of which our lives depend on. To that end, I am trying to balance my soul-nurturing time in nature and the natural sciences with making active and meaningful contributions of my time and energy that will help address the painful challenges that people both near and far from me are facing daily. Lately, it has felt to me that not doing so would be to lose some of my humanity.
You can learn more about the Yaya Foundation and their support for research on 4H Luecodystrophy as well as their support to people and families dealing with the disease at https://yayafoundation4hl.org/.
Over the three days I spent on the Metolius River continuing to weave my own relationships with nature and people, I saw more than 400 butterflies, fully three-fourths of them being Echo Azures. Below is the full list of 20 species: