Unknown Environmental Effects Revealed through Butterflies

Studying the dispersal patterns of butterflies has led to ground-breaking research in understanding the biological harm done by climate change, said biology graduate student Nikhil Advani.

Nikhil Advani, an ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student, holds small caterpillars, which he uses for his research on the dispersal patterns of butterflies to understand the biological harm done by climate change.

With his research on the effects of global warming, Advani said he wanted to show a broader perspective of the problem instead of focusing on the effects of weather or people as is usually done.

“The news usually neglects biological impacts of climate change,” Advani said. “I feel butterflies are so sensitive, and we can gain so much in sight from it.”

Advani said he attributes the usefulness of focusing on the Glanville Fritillary butterflies to their limited dispersal abilities and takeoff temperatures. This means the butterflies tend to not migrate because they lack flexibility and their bodies need to reach certain temperatures to be able to fly.

However, to measure their temperature, a thermal photograph needs to be taken at the perfect time, which is a very frustrating process, but reveals how climate is changing the butterflies, Advani said.

The point of measuring this is the hope that others will use the data to incorporate it to future species distribution models, Advani said. An accumulation of other such studies would lead to better understanding rather than crude models that already exist.

Ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student Ben Liebeskind said he knew Advani as a good guy but not about what he does. He said he learned about the cool system of detailing precise effects of climate on a specific species that Advani is working with.

“I think the value is that if you want to be making predictions, you have to mix physiology and climate,” Liebeskind said. “And it’s not just predicting, it’s about getting right down to it.”

Professor Larry Gilbert, who has also worked with butterflies, said not even natural selection would help the butterflies survive if changes keep up.

“As these populations may be pushed into extreme environments, they’ll begin losing numbers so that they just lose variation,” Gilbert said.

The presentation was a part of the Science Under the Stars series, featuring graduate students interested in reaching out to broader audiences with the research they are conducting.

Graduate student and event organizer Eben Gering said hosting the events outdoors by the Brackenridge Field Laboratory gives the public the sense that science doesn’t have to be confined to the lab.

“We have a couple of goals, specifically to give grad students the opportunity for outreach,” Gering said. “Our education doesn’t really give training for public speaking.”

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