Little butterflies have a big hold on the human psyche. Live Lepidoptera exhibits have become hugely popular in Europe and North America, and butterfly farming for export is being used as an engine for sustainable development. One of the oldest projects is The Butterfly Farm and Costa Rica Entomological Supply, founded by a Peace Corps volunteer in 1983. CRES both grows its own butterflies, and handles the crops of about 80 other producers in Costa Rica. Kenya's Kipepeo Butterfly Project has worked with communities on the edge of the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest to restore the forests and earn decent livings as small-scale butterfly farmers. Similar projects are also underway in other locales, such as The Butterfly House in Peru, aimed squarely at combining sustainability with economic development, and in Tanzania -- where butterfly farming is helping poor farmers earn a better living, but in a less organized way that may put biodiversity at risk.
Scientists only recently sorted out a major butterfly mystery: how Monarch butterflies have steered for millennia between eastern Canada's forests and central Mexico's mountains. It was known that the Monarchs use the angle of polarized sunlight to keep them on course, but researchers have discovered the mechanics of how this works. Special photoreceptors for ultraviolet light in butterfly eyes provide them with sense of direction. This sense connects with the circadian clock in the butterfly brain to both cue the creatures and direct them on their 3,400-odd mile migration.
I'm not sure yet what (if any) worldchanging application this might have (studying the depletion and restoration of the ozone layer, perhaps?), but it's a pretty neat discovery.
This year, a crew of Canadian, American and Mexican pilots will be cruising with the Monarchs as they migrate from Canada to Mexico. The two-person ultralight plane, the Papalotzin (a word from the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl that roughly means "small butterfly"), will be painted with giant facimiles of orange-and-black Monarch wings. A nature documentary may result from the journey (perhaps in the spirit of Winged Migration, which follows migrating birds).
The Papalotzin venture may reveal how the butterflies cope with changing wind, temperature, and weather conditions, which ought to offer useful insights into how these and other creatures may or may not adapt to global warming-induced shifts in climate.
But this trip is primarily aimed at activating awareness, not serving science. Monarchs are losing habitat to logging, agriculture and development, and have endured recent, massive die-offs in their southern overwintering grounds. Projects like the Monarch Butterfly Model Forest and the Michoacan Reforestation Fund are working with local Mexican communities to reforest land deforested for agricultural use, and redevelop local economies with sustainable activities such as eco-tourism.
Butterfly specimens also represent a rich storehouse of ecological data. The Florida Museum of Natural History runs a popular live Butterfly Rainforest exhibit, but arguably there's even cooler stuff is going on behind the scenes, at its' McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. The Christian Science Monitor reports that McGuire researcher Dr. Jacqueline Miller is creating a national U.S. butterfly database.
Presumably, like its Canadian and Mexican cousins -- created to comply in part with the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity mandate to establish an international database of biodiversity -- this storehouse of info will identify each butterfly specimen, along with info on when and where it was collected. The Mexican and Canadian projects were launched with direct federal funding; here in the U.S., the National Science Foundation has so far rejected Dr. Miller's requests for funds. She's getting some assistance from the sources funding Mexican database, and will add her work to Mexico's.
Based on where a butterfly is found, such a database can track shifting plant distribution and loss -- or gain -- of vital open spaces. Canada and Mexico's databases have already revealed that there's a lot of unprotected butterfly habitat in Canada. Additional testing and data input on the butterfly specimens may also reveal information about even less visible changes to the environment, such as distribution or changes in concentration of airborne pollutants, or persistence of pesticides.
The McGuire is buying up collections of dead butterflies from museums and other collectors around the world -- it has 3.5 million specimens already, and plans to have about 23 million within the next 20 years. Hopefully Dr. Miller will find some funding to help her input all that butterfly data.
somethinge will happenimg......