Butterflies to save the world

Jeremy Kerr and a student observe butterflies in a net.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect suggests that tiny motions, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings, can build up to influence future outcomes.

As a uOttawa student who graduated with a BSc in biology in 1993, Jeremy Kerr says he wanted to save the world. Today, as a uOttawa biology professor and University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology, he has stayed true to that youthful idealism.

In the midst of a catastrophic crash in biodiversity across the planet, he set up e-Butterfly.org, an online, citizen-driven science project that maps and tracks millions of butterflies. The data helps monitor how warming climates, wild temperature swings and big storms are affecting butterfly migrations and populations.

Kerr says that digital mapping can help scientists understand how butterflies survive rapid climate change and habitat loss: they use the data to find out which species are adapting and which ones need help to avoid extinction.

More recently, Kerr and his uOttawa team of 10 undergraduate, master’s, PhD and post-doctoral researchers published the first-ever cross-continental analysis of how climate change is affecting 67 species of bumblebees. The research based on observations from 1901 to 2010 found that bumblebees had lost about 300 km of their native range in southern Europe and North America. Whereas other animals and plants respond to a warming climate by moving north, bumblebees have not been doing this. The study also discovered a new biological mechanism that explains how species may respond to climate change based on their evolutionary past.

“Pollinators are vital for food security and our economy, and widespread losses due to climate change will diminish both,” says Kerr. “We need to figure out how we can improve the outlook for pollinators on continental scales. But the most important thing we can do is begin to take serious action to reduce the rate of climate change.”

New strategies to help bumblebees to cope could include helping them to relocate to northern areas.

In the meantime, the same citizen-science used to track butterflies is being used to gather more information on bumblebee populations in the form of Bumble Bee Watch.

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