Rare Palos Verdes blue butterfly gets lift from volunteers


Jana Johnson of Moorpark College’s Butterfly Project poses with a Palos Verdes blue butterfly during a spring 2024 release at a Rolling Hills Estates reserve. Photo by Susan Valot

In a nature reserve in Rolling Hills Estates, Moorpark College Biology Professor Jana Johnson and a troop of volunteers hike through springtime mustard, on the hunt for blooms of red and yellow deerweed and rattlepod. Those plants play host to one of the world’s rarest butterflies, the Palos Verdes blue butterfly.

Once thought extinct, a researcher discovered about 100 of the tiny cornflower blue butterflies on Navy land at the edge of San Pedro in 1994. That researcher started a breeding program, which Jana Johnson took over at Moorpark College and its teaching zoo in 2006.

Johnson’s Butterfly Project breeds thousands of the species in captivity and then releases them at various stages in their lives at several locations on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. 

On a recent outing to turn loose new lab-bred blue butterflies into the wild, Johnson, her students, and volunteers are careful not to step on any of the postage-stamp-size, winged insects they’ve already set free.

Johnson says it’s easy to not only miss them visually, but to overlook the importance of having them around.

“I love Men in Black when the universe turns out to be a jewel on a cat’s collar because we really just don’t appreciate things that are not in our scale,” Johnson says. “Once we start looking at a different scale, it’s a whole new world, it’s a whole new universe. It’s just exciting.”

A delicate Palos Verdes blue butterfly rests on a plant in a Rolling Hills Estates reserve. Photo by Susan Valot

The butterflies only live in the wild for a few days, flitting through the coastal sage scrub in the spring, looking like tiny purple flowers themselves. Hopefully they will mate, lay eggs, and go through their life cycle all on their own, in the wild. 

Johnson’s long-term goal is to make herself superfluous. But so far, she still has a role to play.

“The major thing wiping out this species is just loss of habitat to development,” Johnson says. It’s been “ongoing for decades and decades.”

The habitat grew a little in 2022, when the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy secured an area to act as a wildlife corridor. It connects several existing preserves that overlook the Pacific Ocean. 

The new corridor is similar to the wildlife crossing that’s going up now over the 101 freeway, but instead of just for land-based animals, it’s also for creatures in the air, like the endangered blue butterfly. 

“They’re maybe not a mountain lion or something that you see on the news, but they’re just as important,” says Cris Sarabia, conservation director at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy. “They’re part of the life cycle, the food chain, and it’s something that we work to restore land for.”

The Butterfly Project is already seeing results. The Urban Wildland Group, which models the recovery of the Palos Verdes blue butterfly, estimates there are hundreds of the rare flyers on the Navy land where they were first re-discovered. And they’ve been spotted in the wild at other sites, too.

Johnson likes to think of the small creatures as part of a spaceship known as planet Earth.

“Each species is a rivet in the spaceship. So how many rivets can you pop out before your spaceship doesn’t support your lifeform anymore?” Johnson says. “Life will find a way. I have no doubt about that. Whether or not humans continue to dominate the planet is going to depend on how we take care of our spaceship.”

As Johnson and the volunteers release 285 butterflies, she notes a few flitting in a swirl.

“See the little blue whirlwind?” Johnson points with excitement. “I love it! That makes me so happy!”

The newly-released butterflies get to work quickly, mating in pairs minutes later.



Susan Valot