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Alpine butterflies threatened by ecosystem changes

The butterfly effect is the idea that small localized changes in a complex system can create larger impacts elsewhere.

According to a new study from the University of Alberta, this is precisely what is happening in the alpine regions of North America, where the effects of climate change are bearing down on the butterflies themselves. 

Study lead author Alessandro Filazzola is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“We often frame the effects of climate change directly onto a species as the future becoming either too hot, too dry, or too wet,” explained. Filazzola.

“However, climate change can have indirect effects such as through the food resources of a species. These effects are more likely to affect butterflies, because as caterpillars they often feed on one or a few plant species.”

The researchers used climate change models to investigate how alpine butterflies are affected by shifting ecosystems in North America. 

The study revealed that alpine butterflies with specialized diets are the most vulnerable to climate change. This is because they are limited to a few plants whose availability is now fluctuating.

Butterflies that feed on a wider variety of plants are less likely to be affected.

“The main outcome from this study is our improved ability to quantify the complex effects of climate change on ecosystems,” said Filazzola.

“Understanding the effects of climate change on a species through its food items is very important for biological conservation–climate change is likely going to have complex effects that extend beyond single species mortality.”

Climate models like the one used in this study provide a more comprehensive view of how entire ecosystems are impacted by climate change. 

“Using an approach that looks at the ecosystem level would improve our ability to mitigate biodiversity loss and maintain the delivery of ecosystem services such as pollination.”

The study is published in the journal Global Change Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff


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