Butterflies are the Canaries in the Coal Mine

According to Camille Parmesan, an associate professor of biology at the University of Texas at Austin, a butterfly called Edith’s checkerspot was the first organism to show a documented range shift due to climate change.

At the recent International Conference on the Biology of Butterflies, Camille Parmesan said the Edith’s checkerspot has been dying out in northern Mexico but doing well in Canada.

Camille Parmesan and some colleagues also studied 57 European butterfly species and two-thirds were shown to be moving northward.  Research shows many species move northward because of changes in the growth pattern of plants butterflies rely on for food.  Work on the Edith’s checkerspot showed its host plant was drying up too quickly, making it inedible to the larvae and causing local extinctions.

A butterfly at the Devonian Gardens near Edmonton, Alberta.

A butterfly at the Devonian Gardens near Edmonton, Alberta. Photograph by: John Lucas, edmontonjournal.com.

As long as the host plant grows further north, where it is still cooler, and the butterfly can make its way to those spots through connected habitat patches, the butterfly could shift northward, however, butterflies which already live at high altitudes or in northerly sites are the most likely to be in serious trouble believes  Camille Parmesan.

Jeremy Kerr, an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa, said, “What we’re seeing at the highest elevations is the species with nowhere to go are essentially evaporating off the tops of those mountains and we’re losing those species.  Butterflies are this kind of canary in the coal mine that may be useful guides for what other species will eventually do and the pressures that other species, or species groups, may face.  Whether those species respond the same way or not, the pressures that those species are confronted with may be comparable.”

Further information can be found in this Edmonton Journal article.

David M. Davison

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