Around the world, scientists and conservationists are watching
the 20,000 species of butterflies more closely than ever-for
signs of climate change as well as other habitat disturbance.
"Wild flowers with wings," it turns out, do more than pollinate
plants, feed songbirds, and delight the eye.
Because of their exacting environmental requirements, some butterflies
function as "indicator species" of ecosystem health. In other
words, like the canary in the coal mine, the demise of butterfly
species can point out trouble in the habitat before it becomes
otherwise obvious. . .
For butterflies to survive and produce, the temperature, the
timing of the rains, the growth and blossoming of their particular
food plants-all must be minutely choreographed. So while flagging
populations may indicate trouble, healthy butterfly populations
can mean that the ecosystem's various organisms and cycles are
still in balance.
Butterflies are also indicators of an area's richness of flora
and fauna. The diversity of butterfly species in a region tends
to mirror the biodiversity of other animals and plants as well.
For conservationists, butterfly species can become handy "umbrella
species" to represent an entire ecosystem, especially in urban
areas where large mammals may be long gone but where there is
still a plant and animal community worth saving. Protecting
the butterfly populations then means preserving a whole community
of plants and animals. And because of their aesthetic appeal,
butterflies help garner support for conservation of terrain
that people might otherwise consider unlovable. Thus have butterflies
earned the epithet "charismatic mega-invertebrates."
In Albany, New York, "Karner Blue" has become a rallying cry
for preservation and management of the last remaining parcels
of pine barrens that the butterfly of that name-along with many
other species- needs. In the San Francisco Bay area, the Bay
checkerspot became an umbrella species for a particular type
of increasingly rare habitat-serpentine grassland. When scientists
discovered a Bay checkerspot colony on land slated for one of
the nation's largest landfills, they convinced the waste disposal
company that owned the land and the city of San Jose to design
the dump around the habitat needs of the butterfly. No doubt
capitalizing on the insect's public relations value, the company
even donates $50,000 annually to the butterfly's cause.