Butterfly Becomes Fastest Of Its Kind To Adapt To Climate Change

CREDIT: William Ostheimer/USFWS

The quino checkerspot butterfly

One butterfly species has come back from the brink of extinction and is beginning to quickly adapt to warmer weather, new research has found.

The research, outlined in the Guardian and presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s international symposium, found that the quino checkerspot butterfly has both shifted its range to higher, cooler altitudes and has chosen an entirely new plant on which to lay its eggs. The butterfly, which lives in Mexico and California, was once prevalent, but habitat loss did a number on some colonies and climate change reduced a staple plant of the caterpillars’ diet, leading to more dropoff in butterfly numbers. Six years ago, scientists wondered whether the butterfly should be moved by humans to cooler climates, but the quino ended up not needing human help to adapt to climate change.

“Every butterfly biologist who knew anything about the quino in the mid-1990s thought it would be extinct by now, including me,” Camille Parmesan, professor at the Marine Sciences Institute at Plymouth University, told the Guardian.

Parmesan said that while the butterfly’s movement is encouraging to scientists who are trying to figure out how to save species from a warming climate, it also points to the need for habitat protection. If the butterflies — and potentially other species — adapt quickly enough to move to higher altitudes, it’s essential that healthy environments exist in those altitudes in which the butterflies can settle. It’s also essential that these species have corridors by which to move to higher altitudes, so that they can avoid getting killed by roads or long stretches of developed land.

“We have to give these species the space to adapt,” Parmesan said. “In the early days of climate change people worried that nature reserves would be no longer useful because the species they protected would move out. Now we know that new species move in, and so they are more important than ever.”

Scientists believe the quino checkerspot is the first butterfly species to change habitat and diet so quickly, but it’s not the only species to be forced to adapt to climate change. A 2013 study found that, while trees aren’t moving northward as quickly as scientists expected, they’re instead speeding up their lifecycles, causing younger trees to replace older trees at a higher rate. Certain desert plants, on the other hand, have migrated surprisingly far upslope in response to warmer, drier temperatures, with some moving more than 800 feet from their 1963 lowermost boundaries. One 2011 study found that on average, plants and animals have shifted their habitats uphill at a rate of 36 feet per decade and moved to higher latitudes at a rate of 10 miles per decade.

Other species aren’t adapting so quickly, however. The migration patterns of many butterfly species are being altered by earlier and warmer springs — something that’s happening to some bird species as well. This altered migration timing could lead to mismatches in food and weather conditions for the migrating species, with food sources that were traditionally available at a migration end point hatching or blooming too early for the birds or butterflies to consume. Falcon chicks and penguin chicks are also struggling to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate, including heavy rains and storms and warmer-than-usual weather.