Learning to adapt – about butterflies and climate change
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our century. Along with habitat destruction, they are the main drivers of the global biodiversity crisis. There are more species in danger of extinction than ever before. Many studies show that butterflies are among the species that have responded the most to climate change, usually in the form of northward or elevation range shifts. Climate change affects their life cycles, flight times, essential interactions and ultimately survival.
Butterflies go through a series of swift and dramatic transformations during their life circle. This metamorphosis is sensitive to climatic changes since the transformation from one stage to the next is synchronous with the rhythms of nature and similar to many other natural cycles. A lot of butterflies possess a special sensitivity to warm environments. Thus a slight increase in temperature, imperceptible to humans carries vital significance to butterflies. It has triggered new patterns in their metamorphosis process and even driven the creatures out of their native habitats.
One of the ways of species adaption is through changing the time of year at which they are active. Such timing of life circle events is called “phenology”, so when species start things earlier in the year they are said to be “advancing its phenology”. Advances to some extent have been observed in a wide range of butterflies and moths.
Studies show that species with more flexible lifecycles are more likely to benefit from an earlier emergence driven by climate change. Some species are able to go from caterpillar to butterfly twice or more per year, allowing population growth to occur. However, there are also other species that are less flexible and restricted to a single reproductive cycle per year. They have no benefit from emerging earlier. Moreover, species specialising in one specific habitat type tend to be harmed by advancing phenology.
On the move
In many parts of the world native butterflies are on the move as a result of climate warming. They are leaving their natural homes and going to places with cooler temperatures. These effects are particularly visible in mountain regions. Thus studies show significant and constant shifts of butterfly distributions in the eastern Alps towards higher elevations. As these changes differ among species, they might result in serious community modifications with possible effects on species interactions and competition. A particular concern is presented by species with a low disposition to dispersal because they usually remain in one habitat for many generations.
Long migrations also possess a lot of perils. Sometimes the obstacles on a way make a move impossible, which brings us to the human role in the lives of butterflies. Habitat fragmentation caused by land development combined with climate change threatens butterflies’ survival, depriving them of safe stopover points where they can rest and replenish their energy.
As climate change continues, butterflies may find themselves unable to live with us. Due to our reckless treatment of their habitats, we can lose these joyful and beautiful creatures. However, the protection of butterflies from climate change is important not only for the sake of their beauty. These species play an important role in our ecosystems. Their caterpillars consume large quantities of plants and act as prey for birds, bats and other small mammals. They also act as pollinators of a wide range of plant species, including crops. Their destruction might result in unpredictable cumulative effects for other species in the ecosystem.
Our conservation efforts
To support these important beauties in their fight against the effects of climate change, the European wilderness society is currently conducting two major butterfly conservation projects.
Within two years, A kingdom for butterflies will stabilize the populations of butterfly species in Austria for the long term. With the help of many experts and energetic volunteers, we will actively restore disappearing habitats all across Austria and also breed and reintroduce selected species. Everyone who is interested can be involved in this project: an interactive roadshow throughout Austria will bring the endangered butterflies into Austrian cities and people all ages can learn about butterfly protection in various excursions and workshops.
The Apollo, a very special mountain butterfly that is currently under threat of extinction is the focus of LIFE Apollo2020. This international project between Austria, Poland and Czechia will recreate the Parnassius apollo population in Sudeten Mountain and the White Carpathian and strengthen the population in the Austrian Alps. We strive to raise awareness towards the conservation of Apollo butterflies and their habitats so again, many activities involving local citizens and youngsters will be conducted.
It’s your turn now!
Join us in this battle and protect these magnificent creatures!
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