In the eastern Amazon
River valley of Brazil
, butterflies are being asked to tell us about the health of their forest
habitat. These denizens of the rainforest have become partners in CI’s Tropical Ecology, Assessment, and Monitoring (TEAM) initiative.
This network of tropical field stations monitors long-term trends in biodiversity such as the impact of climate change
. Our site, located at the Ferreira Penna Scientific Station in Caxiuanã National Forest, is one of four monitoring locations. TEAM, launched in 2002, aims to expand the network to approximately 50 sites during the next several years.
Global warming is a particular concern for tropical forests. In these regions, temperatures are relatively constant and species
are not subjected to conditions like excessive drying that are caused by highly variable temperatures. Butterflies are being monitored as an early warning system to detect possible ecological disturbances caused by climate change.
Researchers monitor fruit-feeding butterflies five days a month. Lured to baits of fermenting bananas, these beautiful creatures have shown themselves to be far more diverse than was originally believed. To date, some 120 species of nymphalid (four-footed) butterflies have appeared. In slightly more than 2,500 observations, five species previously unknown in Brazil have been documented.
Certain butterfly species like the tiger and zebra are very abundant. Scarce species, however, are also harbingers of climate change information and could prove to be the proverbial “canaries in the coal mine” for monitoring changes in species composition and abundance.
Determining the impact of climate change in the Amazon will take time. We are just beginning to discover the normal level of variation in butterfly communities
. Only after establishing this baseline can we detect changes and work to ensure that these alterations do not become ruinous. After all, if there is no room for butterflies to fly in a rainforest, then we had better look again at our own lease on this planet.