Butterflies and Climate Change: A Race Against Time


Nikita Iyer and Zoe Whittall

October 14, 2023

The beautiful Anteros renaldus, Renaldus jewelmark.
“Butterflies can be found just about everywhere; they’re incredibly diverse and they reflect what’s going on in other organisms.” - Keith Wilmott, project partner and director of the Florida Museum’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.

Butterflies are not only ubiquitous, but incredibly diverse, serving as vital indicators of the ecological health of other organisms and the environments they inhabit. Butterflies have always been a source of wonder and inspiration for me; they're a reminder of the beauty and fragility of the natural world. I've seen them in all sorts of habitats, from rainforests to deserts to mountaintops, and in all sorts of colors, from bright reds and oranges to delicate blues and purples. As a child, I loved watching them dance through the air, their wings flashing in the sunlight, and was mesmerized by their intricate patterns and vibrant colors.

The beautiful Anteros renaldus, Renaldus jewelmark.

Now, as a wildlife biologist working with invertebrates, I am awed by their incredible beauty and the diversity of colors and patterns found on their wings. From the bright blues and oranges of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, to the iridescent greens and purples of the Morpho butterfly, each species is unique and beautiful in its own way.

By monitoring their populations, we can identify and address problems before they cause irreversible damage. At Rainforest Partnership, we have been running a butterfly monitoring program to train park rangers and conduct research vital to the conservation of the forest. This data on changes in population sizes over time can be used to monitor the health of different species, as well as to identify species at risk of extinction and develop appropriate conservation strategies. What’s more, butterflies also act as an early warning system for forest health.

But in recent years, I've noticed something disturbing: butterflies are losing their pigmentation. Once bright and colorful wings are now dull and faded. This is a serious problem, as it makes butterflies more vulnerable to predators and disease.

Alarmed by the decreasing number of butterflies in my backyard, as well as the dullness of the wings of those I did see, I thought there must be a change in their migratory patterns or some other reason behind this. But then, as I did more research about climate change and its impact on butterflies, I realized that this pigmentation decrease is a real problem affecting butterflies all over the world, and climate change is the primary responsible factor. Butterflies use their wing colors to regulate their body temperature and to attract mates. Darker colors absorb more heat, while lighter colors reflect more heat. As temperatures rise due to climate change, butterflies with lighter-colored wings are having more difficulty regulating their body temperature, leading to stress, disease, and even death.

Climate change is having a devastating impact on butterflies in many other ways, too. For example, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, are increasing. These events can destroy butterfly habitats and food sources, making it difficult for them to survive and reproduce. Additionally, extreme weather events can damage butterfly's wings, leading to the loss of pigmentation.

This loss of pigmentation is a warning sign of a declining ecosystem, an indication that our planet is in trouble.  

Measuring the body width of Adelpha mesentina, the Mesentina Sister.

Butterflies are a symbol of beauty and hope, a living example of the interconnectedness of nature. They are a vital part of ecosystems around the world, and we must do everything we can to protect them. At Rainforest Partnership, we try to ensure that these vibrant creatures continue to brighten our world for generations to come. We have a permanent biodiversity monitoring program focused on butterflies to strengthen the conservation of the Amazon Rainforest and its biodiversity. Butterfly monitoring and educational programs can help local and indigenous communities develop sustainable ecotourism businesses, which can provide a key livelihood for community members. These programs can also help communities leverage data and training to protect their lands, which are often rich in biodiversity and cultural heritage.

Together, we can make a difference for butterflies and for the planet. Support the butterfly monitoring project and follow along for more information.