Fewer butterflies seen by community scientists across the warming and drying landscapes of the American West

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Science  05 Mar 2021:
Vol. 371, Issue 6533, pp. 1042-1045
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe5585

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Warming autumns, fewer butterflies

Many recent studies have revealed sweeping declines in insects over the past few decades. Butterflies are no exception. Forister et al. used three different datasets, collected by both experts and community scientists, and found that the number of butterflies has declined over the past 40 years. Although the drivers of decline are complex, the authors found that climate change—in particular, warmer months in the autumn—explain a large portion, even as warming summers actually lead to increases. This work shows that climate change impacts may be insidious and unexpected in their effects.

Science, this issue p. 1042


Uncertainty remains regarding the role of anthropogenic climate change in declining insect populations, partly because our understanding of biotic response to climate is often complicated by habitat loss and degradation among other compounding stressors. We addressed this challenge by integrating expert and community scientist datasets that include decades of monitoring across more than 70 locations spanning the western United States. We found a 1.6% annual reduction in the number of individual butterflies observed over the past four decades, associated in particular with warming during fall months. The pervasive declines that we report advance our understanding of climate change impacts and suggest that a new approach is needed for butterfly conservation in the region, focused on suites of species with shared habitat or host associations.

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