By Hilary Erenler, Assistant Lecturer, Ecology, School of Science and Technology and member of the Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group
Butterflies and volcanoes. Not two words that naturally sit together in any meaningful way. Combining these two is like uniting fairies and nuclear warheads, or silk and granite; the delicacy of the first just doesn’t resonate with the perceived harshness of the second.
But this is not the first time these dainty insects have been linked to natural hazards with the potential to cause major destruction. The Butterfly Effect, rooted in Chaos Theory, is derived from the suggestion that the change to the atmosphere made by a tiny butterfly wing could ultimately dictate the path of a tornado (Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Edward Lorenz, 1963).
Since Lorenz presented his academic paper, technological advances have revolutionised every aspect of science; from DNA analysis of insects to help unravel their evolutionary connections, to remote sensing of tropical storms and volcanic activity.
Technology brings exciting opportunities to better understand earth processes in real time, but we shouldn’t forget the low-tech. equipment which enabled early naturalists to document the world’s biodiversity in such detail. Two hundred and fifty years on, complementing hand-held GIS equipment and digital maps, the humble butterfly net is still the equipment of choice for assessing butterfly diversity on a volcano in the Neotropics.
Described as one of the most active in Central America, Masaya is a persistently degassing, basaltic shield volcano in Nicaragua. It is set in 54km2 of predominantly dry forest with recent lava flows cutting through areas that are home to white-faced capuchin monkeys and twenty-seven species of snake.
Central American dry forests now persist in less than 2% of the area they once occupied. In the rarity stakes, this puts them above their better-known (and wetter) cousins; tropical rainforests. By a bizarre twist of fate, the presence of the volcano, itself something that could cause the loss of the forest, drives the protection for the area and the butterflies it contains. Without its designation as a National Park, Masaya could easily have become yet another human-altered, former forest environment.
One of the key research themes of an ongoing Earthwatch project I am involved with at this location is to assess the effects of the constantly degassing volcano on the surrounding environment. Butterflies, as key pollinators, are both a charismatic and vital component of this complex landscape. On a recent independent trip to the volcano over Christmas 2011 (with fellow ecologist Dr Michael Gillman from The Open University) we recorded a total of 164 species of butterfly in the park, a staggering twelve of which are potential new records for the country.
These twelve species are not new to science, having been described from other countries in the region, but they share the status of never having been recorded in Nicaragua before.
One of these was the rare, and hard to catch, Godman’s metalmark which is known from only a handful of individuals ever seen. Nothing is known about its larval food plant (the specific type of plant a female chooses to lay her eggs on) or its early stages of development.
In an age where the use of hi-technology equipment alters our personal and scientific lives at breakneck speed, it’s refreshing to know that low-tech. gear can still net such exciting results.
The economic news is not great, global poverty is on the increase even in the richest countries and as Dr Drew Gray’s recent blog discussed, the link between poverty and civil disturbance is real and tangible. But at least it’s Christmas! A time to relax and enjoy ourselves, to share time with family and friends, and to unwind during the cold and gloom of winter. Whatever your faith, or lack of it, Christmas should be about taking a break and reflecting on the year that has passed. We’re helped in that respect by the ceremonial seasonal trimmings: the Christmas tree, strings of flashing lights, baubles and tinsel. So while you’re kissing a loved one under the mistletoe, admiring that glossy holly wreath, or tucking into your Christmas dinner, spare a thought for the insects.
“What in Saint Nicholas’s name have insects got to do with Christmas?!” I hear you asking. Well, like the turkey, we’d be stuffed without them. Insects have played an important role: if we had no flies, wasps, bees and other bugs acting as pollinators, there’d be no berries on your mistletoe or your holly. Kissing and admiring would be a less festive affair and that’s just for starters. These insects also pollinate many of the vegetables, herbs and spices on your plate, as well as some of the forage that went to fatten your roast bird or tender joint of meat. Not to forget much of what went into the nut roast that’s feeding the vegetarian relatives.
The economic value of insect pollination in the UK was estimated by the recent National Ecosystem Assessment to be about £430 million per year. In fact this is a huge under valuation because the labour costs alone of paying people to go round and hand pollinate those crops would run into many billions of pounds. This sounds far fetched but it’s already happening to fruit crops in parts of China and the answer is to encourage wild insects, not artificially managed honey bees.
The Landscape and Biodiversity Research Group here at The University of Northampton is playing its part. We have several recently completed and ongoing projects researching how the wider landscape is supporting pollinators in habitats such as restored landfill sites, country house gardens, and urban centres. This is all part of a broader programme of research into the conservation of biodiversity in our region and beyond, including a contribution to the Shared Enterprise Empowering Delivery (SEED) sustainability project. Biodiversity matters and its importance to our society is being increasingly recognised: delegates at last summer’s Biodiversity Summit came from national and regional businesses as well as from conservation groups such as the Wildlife Trust.
So if you make one New Year’s resolution on the 31 December, let it be that you will put away your bug sprays for 2012 and learn to love the insects (even wasps!) who give us so much and help to support our economy in a very real way. It costs us nothing; all we need to give them is unpolluted space to live in and our gardens can help a lot in that respect.
Have a great Christmas everyone!
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