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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Long-term study sheds light on ecological implications of butterflies

A 35-year study of California butterflies is bringing to attention how organisms respond to changes in their environment.

Arthur Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology, is the lead researcher who designed and executed the butterfly study and compiled observations since 1972.

“Butterflies are charismatic to the public, they like butterflies and care about them. So, they are excellent poster children to get ecological and environmental conservation ideas across to the public,” Shapiro said.

Butterflies are sensitive to environmental conditions such as quality, disturbance and change. Shapiro said they are widely used as environmental indicators.

Shapiro surveyed 10 sites across California in two-week intervals for 35 years.

The sites ranged from the Sacramento River Delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the desert of the Great Basin. Shapiro has recorded about 160 butterfly species and subspecies at these sites.

Data derived from this study can be used to ask questions about short and long-term changes in the population dynamics of butterflies.

“It’s the longest study in the world done by one person,” said Melissa Whitaker, a Ph.D. candidate who is involved in the data analysis of the study.

Numbers reveal that the diversity of butterfly species has declined at half of the 10 sites in California, especially at lower elevations due to habitat destruction, Shapiro said.

“We can really answer some cool questions about the effects of climate change just based on the data that’s been collected,” Whitaker said.

This study can also be valuable in the field of ecology because it is not an experiment and variables were not changed, Whitaker said.

“It speaks to the importance of natural history,” she said.

Shapiro’s transcribed notes from surveying the various butterflies at different sites were translated into an electronic database at the end of each year.

David Waetjen, graduate student researcher, is the database administrator for this research study who manages the database and Shapiro’s website.

“For educational purposes, people can go to the website, select certain data and be able to run a particular analysis with the butterfly data,” he said.

The design of this database makes collaboration with other universities and researchers easier, Waetjen said.

Shapiro said he plans to continue this survey in order to utilize the butterfly database.

SRI RAMESH can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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