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Climate Change and Drought: Butterfly Loss May Be Widespread By 2050

Aug 12, 2015 10:41 PM EDT

The scenarios we take for granted--butterflies that settle on garden flowers and allow their delicate wings to slow and then stop; bright or white pollinators migrating in large numbers--could drop off dramatically by 2050 in the U.K., report researchers from the Center for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), University of Exeter, Butterfly Conservation and Natural England, in a study recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

In their findings, the scientists report that severe droughts will lead to widespread losses, but that if greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced and landscapes managed well to reduce habitat fragmentation, maybe butterflies will continue pollinating and flying until at least 2100, a release noted.

Even ecologists are more concerned than they were before the study: "The results are worrying. Until I started this research, I hadn't quite realized the magnitude and potential impacts from climate change," said Dr. Tom Oliver from the Center for Ecology & Hydrology, in the release.

The study combined data from 129 sites in the U.K., 28 species, historic climate data, habitat data, and climate model projections. The scientists looked at four pathways that are considered CO2 emission trajectories, according to a release.

With the surveys, the team noted six species of butterfly that are sensitive to drought: ringlet, speckled wood, large skipper, large white, small white and green-veined white. These are unlikely to survive past 2050 even under the best emissions scenarios, the researchers said in the release.

Most butterflies won't have time to evolve to become more drought-tolerant, the researchers believe. This is particularly true because these arthropods already have small populations. Results could also potentially apply to species such as birds, beetles, moths and dragonflies, said Dr. Oliver in the release. 

Follow Catherine on Twitter at @TreesWhales

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