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Butterflies as indicators

Butterflies are increasingly being recognised as valuable environmental indicators, both for their rapid and sensitive responses to subtle habitat or climatic changes and as representatives for the diversity and responses of other wildlife.

One of the principle objectives of the UKBMS is to investigate and develop the role of butterflies as indicators of the state of biodiversity in the UK.

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photo of two butterflies on a flowerhead

Their biology and charismatic
appeal make butterflies ideal
biodiversity indicators

Butterflies have short life cycles and thus react quickly to environmental changes. Their limited dispersal ability, larval foodplant specialisation and close-reliance on the weather and climate make many butterfly species sensitive to fine-scale changes. Recent research has shown that butterflies have declined more rapidly than birds and plants emphasising their potential role as indicators.

Butterflies occur in all main terrestrial habitat types in the UK (except for dead wood), so they have the potential to act as indicators for a wide range of species and habitats. Unlike most other groups of insects, butterflies are well-documented, their taxonomy is understood and they are easy to recognise.

 

Because insects make up the largest proportion of terrestrial wildlife (more than 50% of species), it is crucial that we assess the fate of insect groups in order to monitor the overall state of biodiversity. Being typical insects, the responses seen in butterflies are more likely to reflect changes amongst other insect groups, and thus the majority of biodiversity, than established indicators such as those based on birds.

Pie chart showing that insects make up 52% of UK biodiversity

By monitoring we hope to have a more sensitive indicator for insects, which dominate biodiversity - accounting for more than 50% of UK species

Our goal is to produce Governmental butterfly biodiversity indicators for all of the UK countries and for the UK as a whole. Indicators have now been published for the whole of the UK and country indicators are published for England and Scotland. Indicators for Wales and Northern Ireland are under development.

Published indicators:

A range of techniques have been proposed for the analysis of butterfly monitoring data, including those collated by the UKBMS. Similarly, a range of techniques are available for measuring trends in butterfly indicators. See details of the technical aspects involved.