New Atlas Maps all 441 Species of European Butterflies

Butterfly Biodiversity in Europe. The areas of highest biodiversity are in the alps and the mediterranean.

Get excited, because the Distribution Atlas of Butterflies in Europe was released today, and butterfly scientists will be lining up around the block to get their hands on a copy.   The new atlas gives detailed maps of the ranges of  all 441 butterfly species found in Europe.  The new maps were calculated with computer mapping software from a whopping 655,000 field observations of butterflies all over Europe.  To produce this massive book on butterfly biology the highly efficient team of German scientists in charge of the project got help from 272 volunteer naturalists.   The map is just one more reason that I need to move to Europe, because we don’t have maps nearly this detailed or recent for North American species (although will definitely give you all your basic butterfly facts if you’re interested).  I often spend a lot of time looking for butterflies where an old field guide said I could find them, only to find out that that population has gone locally extinct.  North American, lepidopterists, please take note!

The atlas will be useful both in identifying sparse populations, and identifying areas where there is high butterfly biodiversity for conservation.   One in three butterfly species has a range less than 1% of the area of Europe.  Put another way, most butterfly species can be found only in an area smaller than Portugal.   It’s a good thing someone is keeping track of them.


The incredible shrinking butterfly?

Climate change is causing plankton to shrink... are butterflies next?

Is climate change causing cold blooded organisms to shrink?  That’s the finding of a new paper by Dr. Andrew Hirst and his research group at the Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.  The researchers collected data from 40 years of experiments on copepods, a type of plankton.  They took the growth and feeding data on several species  and fed it into a model that also included predictions about climate change.  Their results show that cold blooded critters will grow up to be smaller if the climate warms up, and that this could have a big impact on ecosystems.

Most invertebrates (butterflies included) have the same response to temperature.   In warm climates, they grow quickly and reach maturity faster (this is called the temperature size rule, and about 80% of cold blooded animals follow it).  We often think of growth and development as the same thing, but development is how fast an individual matures and reaches adult hood, and growth is how fast it packs on weight.   So an individual can mature quickly, but still be small.  Anyone who remembers high school knows that chronological age, size, and maturity rate are three different things).

Hirst’s paper is important because it shows that temperature affects development more strongly than growth.   Individuals are growing quickly in warm environments, but they’re developing even faster, meaning they reach adulthood and stop growing while they’re still tiny.  Being small is a big deal when you’re a copepod or an insect because small females can lay fewer eggs, smaller males can’t compete as well for mates, and small individuals are less able to survive droughts and famines.   It’s also important because predators rely on insects and copepods as a food source; they’re the cornerstone of a lot of ecosystems.

We’re excited about this paper here at the Butterflies and Science blog because Jess also studies whether climate change is causing insect shrinkage.  Back in the 80s a few scientists did experiments on the effect of temperature on butterfly body size and development using the sulphur butterfly in Colorado.   Jess spent her summer re-doing some of those experiments on the same  populations.  The rocky mountains have been warming more quickly than other parts of the country, so there’s good reason to think that butterflies might be evolving to be smaller too.   Right now Jess finishing up her experiments, but pretty soon we should know if climate change is making butterflies smaller too.