Butterflies are being profoundly affected by climate change.

Comma butterfly. Photo: Shutterstock

Most people don’t think much about butterflies aside from noticing when one happens to flutter past them. But for those studying ecosystems, they can be important indicator species.

Indicator species like butterflies help scientists judge the ability of other invertebrates to thrive, thus indicating the health of ecosystems.

Butterflies, like so many other creatures, are being affected by climate change.

Instances of extreme climatic events (ECEs) in the United Kingdom, like warm winters, heat waves, droughts, or especially heavy rainfall, can all impact butterfly populations.

Warm winters, for example, can devastate populations because specimens that are overwintering can wake up early and then be killed by returning cold weather. On the other hand, warmer than average summers seem to work out well for butterflies.

While some ECEs benefit butterflies, and others may benefit other species, the increasing frequency with which such events occur is cause for worry.

“The study has demonstrated previously unknown sensitivities of our UK butterflies to extreme climactic events, which are becoming more frequent with climate change,” says Ph.D student and lead author of the study. “Some of these effects are undoubtedly putting future populations at risk.”

As climate change continues, ECEs will continue to occur. They are often sporadic, influenced by a number of factors that we don’t fully understand yet. This means that butterflies and other creatures can’t easily adapt to these changes because they aren’t patterns.

If butterfly populations are being affected in this way, it seems likely that other creatures within those same ecosystems are being impacted as well.

The study focused on the United Kingdom because that country happens to have quite a lot of regular data collected on butterflies. The UK also has a long tradition of citizen scientists recording data to share with one another and with the academy.

However, if these ECEs are happening in the UK, it stands to reason that similar issues are arising in other parts of the world.