Entomologist on butterflies' side in uphill battle

Photo: Lilly M, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

The Czech Republic's butterflies have gone down a tough road. Scientists say about half of their species are endangered and 18 species have gone extinct over the past century. The work of the leading butterfly researcher at the Institute of Entomology in South Bohemia has shown looming trouble for some butterflies but also signs of hope in an unlikely place.

Photo: Lilly M,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Entomologist Martin Konvicka has been chasing butterflies since he was about six years old. But only recently did he discover that it's becoming an uphill climb, literally.

He and fellow researchers at the Institute of Entomology in Ceske Budejovice have discovered that some Czech butterfly species are moving to higher elevations. This not only showed that their behavior was changing, but also that something was changing about their environment. Dr. Konvicka says the likely cause is global warming.

"There was no easy pattern in these 14 species. They were not mountain species or lowland species or threatened species, but simply a patternless group, which indicates that this is probably climatic and not, say, habitat loss in the lowlands, or any other process which would probably only effect a sub-sample of the diversity. But this is really affecting all of them."

The study looked at butterfly sightings by some 200 researchers and butterfly watchers over the past 50 years. The habitat change it showed is likely to be problem-free for most Czech butterflies, but Dr. Konvicka says it spells trouble for some species.

"For the lowland species there is nothing wrong. They are increasing. They are moving. But we will be in big trouble in the future with the highly restricted mountain species, especially in low mountains like Krkonosse or Jeseniky here in Central Europe, where there is no space to climb up higher."

Much of Dr. Konvicka's research seems to point to butterflies packing up and moving.

That's because the biggest challenge to Czech butterflies has been habitat loss caused by forestry practices and communist-era farm collectivization.

But where's a butterfly to go? Not nature reserves, because some human activities actually create better environments. In another study, Dr. Konvicka discovered a haven for endangered butterflies among the barren hills and heavy machinery of Moravia's limestone quarries.

"We not only found butterflies still living in the newer, still operating quarries, but we also found that at least for some endangered species, these young and operating quarries are better than the old ones because there are new, fresh disturbances, and because the biotopes there - the habitats - are very dynamic. There's still something going on."

Discoveries like these give Dr. Konvicka hope for the butterflies he is working to save.

"Most of them - I am an optimist - can be saved. And this is the very important thing: These 18 species that are already gone are gone because people didn't know what to do and what is happening. Now we have the data."