Butterflies fleeing the heat might be one of the first indications of environmental developments that would later affect larger species and humans.
Scientists are keen to focus their research on butterflies because they respond so quickly to changes in their environment. The way butterflies react to climate changes reveals how other species might eventually respond as well. Scientists are even calling on citizen scientists to collect valuable data on butterflies. Volunteers from all over the UK, Denmark, Finland, Germany and elsewhere are involved in the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme to track changes in butterfly populations. About 500 people every two weeks observe fixed walkways called transects (usually 2-4 km long) through butterfly habitats.
Climate changes everything
Research scientist Josef Settele, from the UFZ Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, is concerned that climate change will damage butterfly populations if they do not begin moving to new territory as temperature and precipitation levels change.
“The survival of many species is contingent on migration,” said Josef Settele during a biodiversity session at the Beyond Kyoto conference in Århus, Denmark.
Settele heads a large-scale biodiversity risk assessment project called ALARM that outlines situational, what-if scenarios that may impact the future of how plants and animals spread themselves out geographically. ALARM models show that the Spanish festoon butterfly may lose 97 percent of its niche environment by 2080 unless the species is able to track changes in climate and react accordingly. For many central European species, that means migrating further north as areas of Scandinavia become milder and more environmentally appropriate.
Cluttered and complicated causes
But moving north may be easier said than done. Pollinating species such as bees and butterflies rely on their relationship with very specific plant species to survive. If plant and animals that are part of the same food chain do not react to climate change the same way, the results to either population can be devastating. Butterflies may be headed north, but plant species may not be able to spread their populations as quickly.
During Settele’s presentation, risk assessment models for butterflies that considered several factors such as climate change and species interaction showed significantly more severe devastation to populations over time than climate change alone.
By Anne Shifley
With sources from:
Josef Settele: Research scientist, UFZ Centre for Environmental Research
Department of Community Ecology