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High in the Swiss-Italian Alps, a researcher attempts to capture a rare Raetzer’s ringlet butterfly.

Andrea Battisti

To study a rare butterfly, this scientist had to get vertical

Desperate cliffs call for desperate measures: To study one of Europe’s rarest butterflies, which live on near-perpendicular slopes high in the Swiss-Italian Alps, scientists resorted to rappelling down vertiginous mountainsides. Their efforts have paid off with some encouraging data.

Scientists first described the orange-and-brown Raetzer’s ringlet (Erebia christi) more than 100 years ago. But its treacherous alpine habitat prevented them from studying it in the field. That changed in 2015, when officials with the Osola protected area in northern Italy reached out to two independent insect researchers—who were also veteran rock climbers. Andrea Battisti and Matteo Gabaglio, who each had decades of sport climbing experience, realized they could descend into the butterfly’s lair by hanging from a rope (see video, below).

The biologists and their colleagues ultimately examined 10 sites in Italy and Switzerland. It felt like “being an explorer,” Gabaglio says. “You’re going where nobody has ever [gone], and you’re trying to [find] a butterfly that few people ever see.”

At two key sites, the team spotted 177 ringlets, the researchers reported this month in the Journal of Insect Conservation. That’s good news: The butterflies appear to be more abundant than previous studies suggested. But they did recommend that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and European governments upgrade the status of the species from “vulnerable” to “endangered,” because of climate change and other threats.

The intrepid climbers gathered some “important” new data about the ringlet, says IUCN ecologist Chris Van Swaay. But for IUCN to take up their recommendation, he adds, it will likely need even more hard-earned data.