Meet Some of Pennsylvania’s Rarest Species

Pennsylvania is home to thousands of plant and animal species. While you may encounter many of them in your own neighborhood, some species are quite rare, existing only in small, protected pockets throughout the state. Read on to learn about some of these rare species and their conservation successes.

Regal Fritillary Butterfly

Image Credit: PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs

The last remaining population of regal fritillary butterflies in the entire eastern United States is at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County. The butterfly was once common throughout the Midwest and eastern U.S., but populations have declined significantly, especially in the eastern range. Some populations are still strong in Great Plains states, like Kansas.

The population’s success at Fort Indiantown Gap isn’t a coincidence. The butterflies thrive among the grasses and perennials of an early-successional grassland, and the combination of military activity and careful land management provides the right amount of disturbance to maintain a prairie-like ecosystem. Throughout their lifecycle, regal fritillaries rely on violets, milkweed and thistles for host plants and food sources, and also require a mix of native grasses, like little bluestem and broomsedge.

Fort Indiantown Gap participates in several research and conservation partnerships to promote the health of the population, including with Pennsylvania DEP and DCNR. If you’re interested in seeing the butterflies for yourself, Fort Indiantown Gap hosts tours of the grassland habitat every summer.

Great Lakes Piping Plover

Visitors can walk to Gull Point from the beach at Presque Isle state park. During the spring and summer, sections of the shoreline are roped off to protect nesting sites.

Great Lakes piping plovers, until recently all but vanished from Pennsylvania, have returned to nest at Presque Isle State Park every summer since 2017. Great Lakes piping plovers are a federally endangered shorebird that nests along the shores of the Great Lakes, and are considered a highest-priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

This past summer, two nesting pairs returned to Gull Point, at the tip of Presque Isle. While this may not seem like a significant number, there are only estimated to be 65-70 nesting pairs in the entire Great Lakes population, so each additional fledged chick is a huge win for the population. This year, nine total chicks were fledged – a record for Pennsylvania since the return of the plovers!

Piping plovers migrate to Florida and other southern states in the winter and often return to the same site each year to breed. If you’re interested in viewing Pennsylvania’s piping plovers, there is a trail to the viewing platform at Gull Point. Be sure to bring binoculars!

American Climbing Fern

2022 was a big year for preserving public land in Pennsylvania with the formation of three new state parks, but a lesser-known win is the preservation of the Penrose Swamp Barrens in Luzerne and Carbon counties. Wildlands Conservancy and partners acquired the property last year. It is now part of Weiser state forest.

Penrose boasts a unique wetlands ecosystem and provides habitat for many species of wildlife and plants. Among these plants is the American or Hartford climbing fern. Prior to its discovery at Penrose by Michael Gondell, an amateur naturalist who hunts and fishes in the area, the fern was thought to be endangered in Pennsylvania. Now, because of its abundance throughout the Penrose site, the species is no longer considered endangered. In fact, scientists believe it may be the largest colony of climbing fern in the world.

The Penrose Swamp Barrens and Wildlands Conservancy were recognized at the 2022 Northeast Environmental Partnership Awards. Learn more about the Penrose Swamp Barrens in the video below.

Learn more about how organizations and state agencies are working to protect native plants and animals on Pennsylvania Legacies episodes 149 and 128