The Butterfly Effect: Early Spring Could Lead To Wildlife Population Declines

Photo credit: Carol Boggs

A chain of events caused by climate change has led to a decline in butterfly populations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, researchers at Stanford University recently found.

The study, published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters, could be prescient in determining the long-lasting effects of climate change on many of the world’s species.

As climate change leads to an early spring, the snowmelt caused by the warmer temperatures on the Rocky Mountains decreases the number of summer wildflowers. Fewer flowers, of course, mean less nectar available to butterflies.

In the researchers’ tests, the more nectar female butterflies ate, the more eggs they laid. Therefore, less available nectar led to fewer butterflies being born and, consequently, population declines, they concluded.

If climate change could have such a dramatic impact on butterfly populations, could similar cascading effects be seen in other wildlife species?

It’s quite likely, scientists say, because of the close interconnection among species within an ecosystem.

For instance, earlier snowmelt’s effect on flowers also impacts bees , which pollinate many of the plants that other species rely on for nutrition.

All of these studies serve to remind us of the wide-reaching impacts of climate change.

“Long-term studies such as ours are important to understanding the ‘ecology of place,’ and the effects of weather and possible climate change on population numbers,” says David Inouye, co-author of the paper. “This research is critical to assessing the broader effects of weather on an ever-changing Earth.”

 

Climate Change Occurring Too Quickly For Wildlife To Adapt

Species have been adapting to climate change – manmade or otherwise – since the beginning of their existence. However, a new study suggests that changes to Earth’s climate and the resulting effects on wildlife habitat are occurring too quickly for species to respond.

Although climate change is not a new phenomenon, its magnitude and rate are occurring much faster than over the past 300 millennia – a period that includes three ice ages. In fact, between now and 2100, climate change will be dramatic enough to require species to evolve at a rate 100 times faster than has been proven possible.

The study, conducted by Indiana University researchers and published in the scientific journal PLoS Onefocused on North American rattlesnakes.

The researchers determined that the rattlesnakes migrated an average of just 2.3 meters annually over the past 320,000 years and that their tolerance to climate has evolved about 100 to 1,000 times more slowly. These findings, the researchers said, show that migration has been the only way rattlesnakes have adapted to climate changes, at least in the recent past.

“We find that, over the next 90 years, at best these species’  ranges will change more than 100 times faster than they have during the past 320,000 years,” said Michelle Lawing, lead author of the paper. “This rate of change is unlike anything these species have experienced, probably since their formation.”

Using climate-prediction models for the next 90 years, the researchers found that the rattlesnakes’ ranges would be displaced by 430 meters to 2,400 meters per year, thus indicating that the snakes would be unable to move fast enough to keep up with the changes to its habitat.

Although this particular study focused on only one species, the researchers say that because rattlesnakes depend on the environment to regulate their body temperatures, the species is representative of how climate change affects many forms of life on the planet. A warming – or drastically altered – climate, therefore, has the potential to be disastrous to not only rattlesnakes, but other species as well.

Bhutan: Culture and Conservation in the ‘Land of Happiness’

The nation of Bhutan – the self-proclaimed “Land of Happiness” – is arguably one of the few remaining places in the world uncorrupted by modern commercialization. But now, the small country in Southeast Asia could be in danger of losing parts of its authenticity and culture that made it so “happy” in the first place.

In 2005, Bhutan’s government instituted what it calls a “Gross National Happiness” policy, which is intended to “ensure that progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.”

The utter absurdity of a law mandating happiness does not warrant further explanation. But the irony is that it’s starting to look like the entire “happiness” effort was actually driven by commercialism itself. The country has launched a new tourism campaign, and new websites – such as TravelBhutan.com - are starting to dot the Internet landscape.

In another ironic twist, part of Bhutan’s tourism push involves what the government calls a “Noah’s Ark of wildlife” thriving in the country’s newest national park – including the endangered snow leopard, whose population in the wild falls in the range of 4,500 to 7,500 individuals, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

WWF says a recent study showed the leopards are “thriving” in the area, which is positive news for conservation. But what happens when Bhutan succumbs to the tourism trap? What will happen to the country’s culture, its people and conservation efforts?

The answer may lie in yet another irony: Bhutan’s definition of “happiness” is the assurance that “progress does not affect conservation and social harmony.” But aren’t conservation and social harmony considered “progress”?

It may be time for Bhutan to assess what really makes its people happy.

 

New Theory Behind Earth’s Great Extinction

Over 250 million years ago, a mass extinction annihilated nearly all of Earth’s living species. Scientists have proposed many theories for why this occurred, and until now, the most widely accepted explanation for the event had been that volcanic eruptions burned through coal beds, releasing carbon dioxide and other fatal toxins into the environment.

But researchers at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, have uncovered a potential new reason for the mass extinction: mercury.

The study, published in the academic journal Geology, notes that the mass extinction occurred during the time of greatest volcanic activity in the planet’s history. Mercury deposition rates in this period were up to 30 times higher than in today’s volcanic activity, the researchers found. Levels this high could have been catastrophic enough to wipe out life on the planet.

Normally, algae acts as a purifier of toxins.

“Typically, algae acts like a scavenger and buries the mercury in the sediment, mitigating the effect in the oceans,” says Dr. Hamed Sanei, lead author of the study. “But in this case, the load was just so huge that it could not stop the damage.”

The new research has the potential to change the way scientists view not only the Earth’s past, but also its future.

“We are adding to the levels through industrial emissions,” adds Dr. Benoit Beauchamp, another author of the study. “This is a warning for us here on Earth today.”

However, it also shows how the planet’s resiliency, as well as surviving life forms’ ability to adapt to harsh conditions.

“After the system was overloaded and most of life was destroyed, the oceans were still able to self-clean, and we were able to move on to the next phase of life,” Sanei says.

Brazil’s Forests, Ecosystems At Lawmakers’ Mercy

The Amazon and other important ecosystems in Brazil could soon be in danger, as new legislation attempts to send crucial forest protections to the chopping block.

The bill seeks to cut elements of the nation’s Forest Code, which mandates that a certain proportion of rural land be protected as forest, as well as establishes protections for natural vegetation in “sensitive” areas, such as on steep slopes and along the margins of rivers and streams.

According to a statement issued by the World Wildlife Fund, which starkly opposes the legislation, Big Ag has been lobbying Brazilian lawmakers to remove portions of the code in order to open up more land for cattle ranching and agriculture.

Thousands of protestors filled the lawn in front of the Brazilian National Congress this week, urging lawmakers to reject the legislation. The WWF also reports that over 1.5 million Brazilian have signed a petition encouraging President Dilma Rousseff to veto the reform bill if it were to pass both house of Congress.

Several of the country’s senators have expressed their opposition to the bill, according to representatives from the WWF who were present at the demonstrations.

“The draft bill, as it stands, only benefits a handful of big agribusiness groups and large landowners, and it will actually be promoting and rewarding deforestation in the Amazon,” Sen. Randolphe Rodrigues commented, according to a WWF report. “The text sets us against the tide of history – it stands for economic power alone, which destroys and debilitates so many beautiful things.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week, and it will then be sent back to the House for the final vote.