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.

Study Reveals Massive Ecological Effects Of Animal Population Declines

Photo by Erik Christensen

The loss of large predators and herbivores has led to a staggering ecological shift and, in some cases, even contributed to climate change, according to a new research released by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

According to the study, reductions in the populations of large animals have had detrimental effects on marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems around the world.

For example, whales sequester carbon in the ocean through the deposition of feces. Industrial whaling has caused whale populations to plummet over the last 100 years, causing an additional 105 million tons of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, the research concludes.

In this instance, a population decline has contributed to climate change. But the inevitable chicken-and-egg quandary emerges: Are the changes to the ecosystem leading to climate change, or is climate change resulting in ecological shifts?

Perhaps a combination of both, depending on the individual animal population and ecosystem. Even this study admits that, in addition to the loss of large predators and herbivores, a variety of factors – including land-use practices, habitat loss, pollution and climate change – have altered ecosystems worldwide.

Catch 22 aside, this research sends a clear message: Earth’s delicate balance is easily disrupted, and conservation is key to its survival.

DOI’s New ‘Scientific Integrity’ Policy Fools No One

Well, we can all rest assured that the federal government — or at least the scientific activities carried out and overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior — will be free from corruption and outside influence. I’m being cynical, of course.

Perhaps with positive intentions but naïve expectations (in true accordance with the president’s character) the department has established a new policy to “maintain the integrity of scientific and scholarly activities used in departmental decision making.”

It’s a great idea, in theory: regulate the ethics of the government. In fact, Secretary Salazar and his PR team have invented a genius strategy to inflate not only the department’s image, but also that of President Obama and his administration.

Except we all know that law and ethics are not the same. Regulating ethics with a vague and subjective “policy” is like putting a bowl of candy in front of a four year old and telling her not to eat it: You’re stating a rule, but you’re not enforcing it — in fact, by instituting broad guidelines instead of drafting specific laws, you’re actually enabling the behavior.

“Regulating ethics with a vague and subjective ‘policy’ is like putting a bowl of candy in front of a four year old and telling her not to eat it.”

According to a statement from the DOI, the new “Scientific Integrity” policy will “use clear and unambiguous codes of conduct for scientific and scholarly activities to define expectations for those covered by this policy.”

When these “unambiguous codes of conduct” are stated in writing and are actually enforced, please feel free to correct me. But as of right now, the policy remains pretty vague, with goals such as these:

  • Facilitate the free flow of scientific and scholarly information, consistent with privacy and classification standards, and in keeping with the Department’s Open Government Plan;
  • Facilitate the sharing of best administrative and management practices that promote the integrity of the Department’s scientific and scholarly activities; and
  • Encourage the enhancement of scientific and scholarly integrity through appropriate, cooperative engagement with the communities of practice represented by professional societies and organizations.

What I think we all want to know is, will this policy really make a difference in upholding the ethics of the way science is used to formulate and influence policy? Forgive my cynicism, but the answer is no.

Will the agricultural, pharmaceutical and oil behemoths — and their lobbying counterparts — still have control over policymakers’ decisions of whether to enforce scientifically ethical behavior? Unfortunately, yes.

Can we do anything about it? Actually, yes. Despite all the government bureaucracy, people still have the power to effect change — look at the current uprising in Egypt, or any revolution for that matter. We can voice our opinions, air our concerns and urge our representatives to make the right decisions. Hey, if they want to be re-elected, believe me — they’ll listen.

More U.S. Debt? China Extends ‘Panda Loan’

As political tension between the U.S. and China continues to grow over issues such as trade agreements, intellectual property and human rights, some Americans are concerned about the loan provided to us by the burgeoning nation.

No, I’m not talking about the United States’ $900 billion debt to China – although that is certainly an issue that needs tackling – but rather the loan of its giant pandas to the U.S. National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Well, it looks like we’ll get to keep them a little while longer.

An agreement signed today by Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo, and Secretary General Zang Chunlin of the China Wildlife Conservation Association extends the “panda loan” for five more years in an effort to support breeding, research and conservation efforts, according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While China plows forward in fields such as manufacturing and renewable energy, it’s encouraging to see that it still values the intellectual, scientific and research capabilities that the U.S. has to offer. In addition to the obvious trade partnerships that are so critical to both nations’ economic health, scientific research and wildlife conservation have the potential to be key areas of collaboration between the countries.

The competition will undoubtedly be fierce in the years ahead — and yes, there are myriad issues bound to cause friction. The U.S. and China represent a classic case of a love-hate relationship, and this co-dependent couple will continue to be passive aggressive into the foreseeable future. But China, please leave the pandas out of this. After all, they’re not the ones who owe you $900 billion.