Summer seems in the distant past as the New Year approaches, yet some of us are still thinking about the wildlife that frequents the Vineyard in the warm summer months. For the past two summers I wandered through the fields and forests of the Vineyard, planting the seeds for a study I would later conduct.
The first phase of the study was launched during the summer of 2011 at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. The study set out to identify and assess the host plant selection process of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) on Martha’s Vineyard. By focusing on the butterfly garden at Felix Neck I was able to produce graphs that illustrated host plant preferences by a range of Lepidoptera based on my data. I also did further research on the causes of host plant selection under different circumstances in the environment and wrote a comprehensive paper on the topic that won several awards and achieved recognition both on the Vineyard and at the Connecticut State Science Fair. My interest in the subject grew, and over the winter I worked with biologists, naturalists and statisticians on a second study that continued the theme of host plant preference. I created statistical models on host plant preference by Epargyreus Clarus, commonly known as the Silver Spotted Skipper.
The original hypothesis for my follow-up study was that I would be able to build statistical models for Epargyreus Clarus and that these models would predict the host plants that E. Clarus would use under certain circumstances. But when I started to conduct the experiment, I saw a dramatic decline in not just the Silver Spotted Skipper, but all butterflies in general. I wondered why. But because my sample population was now so small I knew that I would not have enough data to build statistical models. I shifted my focus and started to look for changes in the butterfly garden at Felix Neck as well as in the overall environment of Martha’s Vineyard and surrounding areas of Massachusetts.
In my research I discovered that other biologists and naturalists had also observed a decreased number of Lepidoptera, both on the Island and the surrounding areas. In August 2012, I attended a climate change talk at Poly Hill Arboretum hosted by Dr. Richard B. Primack (professor of biology at Boston University). He conducted a study at Walden Pond and used Henry David Thoreau’s data from the mid-19th century as a comparison and a “control” set.
Mr. Primack’s data suggested that Lepidoptera and other insects are very susceptible to climate change, and the effects of these changes in weather affect the interactions between species of butterflies as well as their interactions with plant life which are also affected by changing weather patterns. Lepidoptera have a relatively short life span, and as a result are good indicators of possible climate change. Additionally, plant leafing-out occurrences are abrupt and can be directly measured, which gives more exact data about leafing-out times and the coordinated presence of Lepidoptera in the environment. As a possibility to manage Lepidoptera dealing with climate change, Dr. Primack suggested assisted migration, where Lepidoptera are placed in environments where their presence is dropping off because of changing weather.
These changes aren’t just happening on the Vineyard. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which originated at MIT in the late 1960s, has conducted studies that support the idea that changing weather patterns are affecting Lepidoptera and their habitats more than prior data had suggested. In an article written by Liz Durkee in the Vineyard Conservation Society Almanac, she noted that the UCS reported “39 butterfly species are proceeding northward in their range and some are emerging from their cocoons so early that food isn’t available.”
This figure supports and highlights the research that I conducted this past summer, illustrating that there are changes in weather patterns both on a local and global scale. Camille Parmesan, a scientist who works for the UCS, has also observed changing butterfly behaviors and attributes this change to weather. In her article published in the UCS’s journal, she discusses the how the “changes in [butterflies] vulnerable populations could be a sensitive indicator of global warming.”
Ms. Parmesan and the UCS have conducted many studies that deal with changing butterfly migratory patterns and behavior. In a profile of her written for UCS, Seth Shulman wrote “In Europe, [Ms.] Parmesan was able to join with colleagues to determine that nearly two-thirds of some 57 species of non-migratory European butterflies were similarly dying out on the southern edge of their ranges, or shifting northward and to higher elevations.”
Ms. Parmesan warns that if these patterns of evolving habitats and butterfly behaviors continue to dramatically change over the coming years, we may “face the threat of mass extinctions” which will certainly change the environment both locally and globally.
Most likely there will never be identical seasons, and conditions year to year and wildlife will vary, but the constant commitment of organizations such as Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and Martha’s Vineyard as a whole, reinforces how important it is for everyone to pay attention to the unique habitats that exist on the Vineyard, and across the globe.
Elizabeth Wolf is in 11th grade and attends Greenwich Academy, a day school in Connecticut. She has worked with Suzan Bellincampi of Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary for the past two years, as well as with Dr. Ann Decker.