How Science Is Helping Us Save Butterflies And Moths

Dr Martin Warren

Exhilarating, exhausting and exciting. These were my overriding feelings at the end our Symposium that was held from 3-6 April 2014 at Southampton University.

Exhilarating because there were 238 delegates from 28 countries from around the world; exhausting because there were 80 fascinating talks packed with new information on butterflies and moths, as well as discussions late into the night; exciting because we heard of many wonderful projects that are either helping us understand the ecology of butterflies and moths or successfully saving threatened species.

A major theme was climate warming and the massive impacts it has already had on butterfly populations. Professor Chris Thomas, one of the world’s top climate ecologists, explained the world has already warmed by an average of 2ºC and most animal groups had moved north in the UK, some of them even more than butterflies.

Camille Parmesan, another eminent climate scientist from the USA, then showed us that the Purple Emperor had moved north in Europe by over 600km, now hurtling up through Finland. She also gave us hope that species might be more able to adapt to changing climate than we had thought. She cited the Quino Checkerspot, a highly endangered butterfly in California, which had colonised cooler habitats high in nearby mountains by switching to a completely new food-plant. Nature continues to amaze us.

Practical management of habitats for conservation also featured prominently as well as the potentially crucial role of microclimatic variation in the landscape, which might be able to buffer species as the climate warms. Climate change may be all pervasive, but the research highlights practical steps we can take to help species survive in a rapidly changing world.

At the close of our Seventh Symposium, I gave the following seven observations:

  1. Citizen science projects are vital for research. Systematic butterfly recoding and monitoring using volunteers began in the UK during the 1970s and have provided an immense body of long running data for research. Many countries around the world have now adopted similar techniques and are gathering their own wonderful datasets. At the Symposium we heard of huge insights coming from Monarch Watch in the USA, the Garden Butterfly Scheme in France, and the new Atlas project in South Africa.
  2. Persistence pays off. The long perspective of many researchers, some of whom started in the 1960s, has enabled a unique insight into the problems facing Lepidoptera and has led to crucial discoveries. Bob Pyle explained how the pioneering work of ecologists at Monks Wood Experimental Station near Huntingdon and early contact with the British Butterfly Conservation Society (as we were then known) inspired him to establish the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Tom Brereton of Butterfly Conservation explained the history of the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme which has yielded over 100 scientific papers since its inception in 1976. But the record for durability at the Symposium must be the 46 years of research conducted by Mike Singer on Fritillary butterflies in the USA, which enabled him to track their evolution onto new food-plants. Without the background work, we would not have known that evolution could operate over such short periods.
  3. Climate change might not be as bad as we have feared. Camille Parmesan showed that some species have adapted to warming climate either by moving range or adapting to new habitats. We should not be complacent but nature might be more resilient than we think. But we need to maintain thriving populations with enough genetic diversity to adapt.
  4. Microclimate matters. The importance of micro-climates to insects such as butterflies was discussed at several talks at the 1992 Symposium, but the research has now reached new heights of sophistication. Micro-climates vary with turf height, basking substrate, aspect of slope and topography. We learnt that the coldest places are not on mountain tops, but on the north facing slopes the other side, so species only have to move short distances to live in a more optimal environment. All this can be modelled against species distribution to see how they are adapting. Conservationists can also manipulate micro-climates to allow variety within and between sites to give species the best chance of coping with climate change.
  5. We need to celebrate success. Several talks described the successful conservation of threatened species from the Mardon Skipper in USA, the successful re-establishment of a whole new population network for the Apollo in Finland, to the Landscape Conservation projects run by Butterfly Conservation in the UK. We can now demonstrate to funders that if they give us sufficient funds, we can save even the most threatened species.
  6. Young researchers hold the key to the future. Some of the best talks at the Symposium were given by the youngest researchers. It is wonderful to see a new generation of researchers conducting superb and painstaking research to take us the next step in our understanding of the ecology and conservation of Lepidoptera. They will carry the flame of research into the future and eventually take on the mantle of the venerable old researchers themselves.
  7. We are a global movement. At the Symposium, there were speakers from every continent talking about their meticulous and detailed research to understand and conserve Lepidoptera in their countries. It is clear we are now a global movement working together to conserve these important and inspirational species around the world. Lepidoptera often act as flagships for the whole of conservation, so this work reaches out beyond the Lepidoptera themselves to ensure that countries value and protect all biodiversity on which we all ultimately depend.

Butterfly Conservation established a series of International Symposia back in 1992 in order to bring researchers together from around the world and exchange information on the ecology of butterflies and moths. The ultimate aim was to ensure that we used the best scientific evidence to conserve them. The threats to Lepidoptera may not have dimmed through this time, but our understanding of the threats and possible solutions has come on leaps and bounds. Thanks to the huge expertise gathered at Symposia such as this, we now stand a far better chance of reversing their declines and ensuring they survive for future generations to enjoy.

We are already planning our next Symposium, which will be held in Spring 2018, coinciding with Butterfly Conservation’s 50th anniversary. We are looking forward to hearing another set of revelations from even more countries then.

You can download the full Symposium programme and abstracts.

Dr Martin Warren
Chief Executive, Butterfly Conservation

Follow me on twitter @martinswarren