Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

What Insects Can Tell Us About Climate Change

Climate

Climate News Network

By Alex Kirby

British researchers are using insect specimens kept in museums for a century and a quarter to learn more about climate change and the steady move towards the earlier annual arrival of spring.

Thousands of butterfly specimens, some collected in the United Kingdom (UK) as long ago as 1876, are being used to extend the reach of phenological research (phenology is the study of the timing of recurring natural events and seasons).

The researchers, whose work is centered on the UK's Natural History Museum (NHM) in London and the University of Coventry, hope eventually to extend their timescale and to study the effects on birds and plants as well as insects.

They say that some species which develop early in the year are approaching the point where they will not be able to adapt any further to the inexorable change in the seasons.

The date when butterflies emerge each spring has been systematically recorded for the past 30-40 years under the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Its records show that since 1976—about the time when rapid global warming began—spring has arrived 6-11 days earlier each decade because of rising temperatures.

Now ecologists from the NHM and the university have used some of the museum's 130,000 butterfly specimens to look back at earlier springs. They examined 2,600 specimens of four British butterfly species—the Grizzled Skipper, the Duke of Burgundy, the Orange Tip and the Blue Adonis. Collected between 1876 and 1999, each butterfly is labelled with when and where it was caught.

When they compared collection dates with temperature records, the researchers found that in years with warm springs, collection dates were earlier than in cold, wet springs. The results also show that March temperatures and rainfall were most critical in influencing how early these butterflies emerged.

But Dr. Steve Brooks of the NHM told Climate News Network: “We've found that while our data show that March has been the most significant month, increasingly it's becoming February.

"We think these early species are approaching the point where they won't be able to get any earlier—they're not going to be able to hatch and survive in January, for instance, or at least not for a long time. So their flexibility and room for manoeuvre are shrinking."

Understanding the impact of these changes also matters because different species depend on each other for food. If butterflies emerge earlier than they used to, this can mean they are no longer in step with the growth of the food plants on which their caterpillars depend.

In turn, many birds depend on the caterpillars to feed their chicks. So changes in the timing of butterfly life cycles may lead to insufficient caterpillars being available when they are needed by the young birds. Long-term data from museum collections can provide a more accurate idea of the rates of these shifts in timing, Dr. Brooks says.

"The Orange Tip needs seed pods from garlic mustard," he explained. "So there will be a knock-on effect from the butterflies for birds like tits.

"But we have a huge bird's egg collection at the museum, with 130,000 specimens. So we can find the laying dates, and the dates when plants flowered, and we'll be able to build up quite a detailed picture."

The team will now use the museum collections to study how all British butterfly species have responded to seasonal climate change over the past 150-200 years, possibly taking them back to per-industrial days

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Anderson Community Group. Left to right, Caroline Laur, Anita Foust, the Rev. Bryon Shoffner, and Bill Compton, came together to fight for environmental justice in their community. Anderson Community Group

By Isabella Garcia

On Thanksgiving Day 2019, right after Caroline Laur had finished giving thanks for her home, a neighbor at church told her that a company had submitted permit requests to build an asphalt plant in their community. The plans indicated the plant would be 250 feet from Laur's backdoor.

Read More Show Less
Berber woman cooks traditional flatbread using an earthen oven in her mud-walled village home located near the historic village of Ait Benhaddou in Morocco, Africa on Jan. 4, 2016. Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. /NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Danielle Nierenberg and Jason Flatt

The world's Indigenous Peoples face severe and disproportionate rates of food insecurity. While Indigenous Peoples comprise 5 percent of the world's population, they account for 15 percent of the world's poor, according to the World Health Organization.

Read More Show Less
Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Olivia Sullivan

One of the many unfortunate outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic has been the quick and obvious increase in single-use plastic products. After COVID-19 arrived in the United States, many grocery stores prohibited customers from using reusable bags, coffee shops banned reusable mugs, and takeout food with plastic forks and knives became the new normal.

Read More Show Less
A mostly empty 110 freeway toward downtown Los Angeles, California on April 28, 2020. Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The shelter in place orders that brought clean skies to some of the world's most polluted cities and saw greenhouse gas emissions plummet were just a temporary relief that provided an illusory benefit to the long-term consequences of the climate crisis. According to new research, the COVID-19 lockdowns will have a "neglible" impact on global warming, as Newshub in New Zealand reported.

Read More Show Less
Centrosaurus apertus was a plant-eating, single-horned dinosaur that lived 76 to 77 million years ago. Sergey Krasovskiy / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Scientists have discovered and diagnosed the first instance of malignant cancer in a dinosaur, and they did so by using modern medical techniques. They published their results earlier this week in The Lancet Oncology.

Read More Show Less
Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. NPS

By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts

The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.

Read More Show Less

Trending

The ubiquity of guns and bullets poses environmental risks. Contaminants in bullets include lead, copper, zinc, antimony and mercury. gorancakmazovic / iStock / Getty Images Plus

New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.

Read More Show Less