Like many doctoral students, Anne Trainor spends long days looking at data in close quarters. She shares a small office in an old campus building where exposed metal pipes clank loudly whenever the heat comes on.

But for three weeks during the summer, Trainor trades her cubicle for nearly 190,000 acres of wilderness, wetlands, and wide-open meadow. During those days, she’s not just another graduate student. She’s a butterfly tracker.

Trainor is part of a group studying rare and endangered species at Fort Bragg, a U.S. Army base near Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fort Bragg has some of the best-preserved longleaf pine forests in existence, says Aaron Moody, who heads the study.

The land at Fort Bragg serves largely as a buffer for the public and is used in ways that are surprisingly compatible with wildlife conservation, Moody says. In fact, much of the land isn’t used at all.

“You might imagine on a military installation there are lots of chances for fires to ignite,” Moody says. “Fire happens to be great for longleaf pine forests.” Periodic fires maintain the open, park-like understory that is both typical of healthy longleaf pine forests and critical for their regeneration, he says.

As a federal institution, Fort Bragg also has to adhere to federal wildlife regulations and manage the recovery of endangered species — responsibilities that the Army takes very seriously, Moody says.

Moody’s group is studying how certain species move from one habitat patch to another. This process, called dispersal, tells us how populations interact, and how new populations form as species move to new breeding sites.

“What we’re trying to do with this project is get a much more nuanced view of how organisms actually interact with the habitat once they are outside of their native habitat, and while they’re in the process of moving to some new location,” Moody says. These interactions are especially important for rare species whose numbers or habitat may be compromised.

Threatened species

Moody’s study focuses on four species: the St. Francis’ satyr butterfly, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the Carolina gopher frog, and the eastern tiger salamander. The butterfly and woodpecker are both federally listed as endangered species, and the frog and the salamander are on North Carolina’s list of threatened species.

The St. Francis’ satyr is so endangered that Moody’s team can only conduct on-site observation. The small, brown butterfly is found nowhere else in the world. So the team uses a surrogate — the Appalachian Brown satyr, which also lives on Fort Bragg land — for experimental release studies.

Click to read photo caption.

The research team captures the Appalachian Brown with a net and transports it to different sites. The team then releases the butterfly and monitors how it moves in the new habitat, staying at least four meters away to reduce interference.

Tracking the butterfly’s movement doesn’t always involve a stroll through a meadow. Butterflies are fast. “There were instances when it was booking it across an open area, and you’re just running as fast as you can,” Trainor says.

The trackers drop a small, brightly colored beanbag every ten seconds, at the beep of a stopwatch, marking where the butterfly was flying or perched. After completing the experiment, the team records the flight path, catches the butterfly, and returns it to where they found it.

A more high-tech device helps track the movements of red-cockaded woodpeckers. The team attaches a small, lightweight transmitter on the tail feathers of selected birds. The transmitter sends signals to nearby radio receivers. “Wherever the signal goes, we go,” Moody says. As the young female woodpeckers seek out new nests, the team uses the radio transmitters and GPS measurements to keep track of where the birds travel.

The team also uses satellite data and LIDAR (aerial photography and light detection and range), which measures the topography of the surface, in order to characterize the structure of the canopy, important for both the butterfly and woodpeckers’ habitats.

Trainor says the study applies modern remote sensing technology and field data to merge geography with conservation. With this merging, Moody hopes to understand not only how the species move throughout the landscape, but also how the landscape guides and influences that movement. “If we know that,” he says, “we can start to make decisions about how to manage intervening landscapes or what land uses might or might not be appropriate for those landscapes.”

This means how to manage land development and whether to buy a certain parcel of land for conservation purposes, Moody says.

In March, Moody’s team will head out to monitor the red-cockaded woodpecker for the second year. It will be the first for Trainor, who expects to get more exercise tracking woodpeckers than butterflies. “It’s a different scale,” Trainor says. “The woodpeckers are going to be a lot of running around.”

Sarah Whitmarsh was a student who formerly contributed to Endeavors.

Anne Trainor is a first-year doctoral student of geography in the College of Arts and Sciences. Aaron Moody is an associate professor in the Department of Geography. He is a co-recipient of a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program to continue his study at Fort Bragg. Their research team includes Nick Haddad of N.C. State; Jeff Walters of Virginia Tech; and Bill Morris and Larry Crowder, both of Duke University.