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This page was published on 21/04/2005
Published: 21/04/2005


Published: 21 April 2005  
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Tracking devices uncover truth about butterfly flittering 

European researchers are out to dispel the myths about the apparent aimless meanderings of butterflies by revealing that this delicate insect follows decisive flight patterns. Their findings shed light on one of the planet's more important pollinating species and could help other fields such as biodiversity and climate research.

Close up of the butterfly with its antenna attached. © BBSRC and Rothamsted Research
Close up of the butterfly with its antenna attached.
© BBSRC and Rothamsted Research
The flittering movements of butterflies are not as random as they appear, according to new research published in the UK's Proceedings of the Royal Society. British scientists at Rothamsted Research have found that butterflies' seemingly irresolute travels are, in fact, decisive itineraries.

Using harmonic radar devices, the team tracked the flights of butterflies to understand their behaviour and to keep better taxonomic records of their populations. The idea was also to observe how well this important pollinator is surviving as its natural environment is put under increasing stress. 

The research team – backed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in the UK – attached tiny radar transponders to peacock and small tortoiseshell butterflies. The radar then tracked the butterflies' position accurately up to 1km away. Previous studies had to use visual observation – which proved difficult over wider distances – or indirect mark-recapture techniques.

The butterflies were recorded flying quickly and directly to potential feeding sites or foraging in a circular and ‘oriented' manner.  Lead author of the paper, Lizzie Cant, stressed the importance of butterflies as pollinators, providing a crucial service to plants in many ecosystems. “This research will help us to understand a little more about how they survive in a countryside that is becoming more and more fragmented."

Neglected science
According to taxonomists, butterflies are acknowledged in the fields of conservation and biodiversity. Changes in the geographic distribution of these insects can be effective in showing the biological effects of global climate change, and potentially for predicting its future impacts.

As a science, taxonomy is critical to all branches of biological science and biotechnology. Taxonomic databases and data about the geographic distribution of species, such as butterflies and other prolific insects, are also being put to use to understand and monitor biodiversity. Yet the experts argue that financial support for taxonomy is too often neglected.

A significant budget was set aside in the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for research into global change and ecosystems which is filling a perceived shortfall in funding. Integrated Projects, such as ALTER-NET – Long-term Biodiversity, Ecosystem and Awareness Research Network – are setting up a pan-European long-term interdisciplinary research facility for research on the complex relationship between ecosystems, biodiversity and society. Research will contribute directly to our understanding of the inter-relationship between biodiversity and the services it provides to society, and vice versa.

BBSRC, EU Major Projects Library

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See also

Tracking butterfly flight paths across the landscape with harmonic radar (Royal Society)

Rothamsted Research

Major Projects Library (Global change and ecosystems)


Scientific inspiration … more than the flutter of butterfly wings  (Headlines, 16 November 2004)

DNA sampling boosts animal conservation and taxonomy (Headlines, 20 October 2004)

The world’s species are counting on it (Headlines, 29 July 2003)

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