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Butterflies: Barometer For Climate Change

Quincy J. Walters

At Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, the landscape is quintessential Florida. There's the marsh area with towering cypress trees and there's the wet prairie. 

It's what Florida looked like hundreds of years ago. And it's one of the places where people were tallying butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association's (NABA) summer count. 

NABA holds counts three times a year. From those numbers, scientists are able to gauge the impacts of climate change.

In the wet prairie area of the swamp, Sally Stein, the Director of Programs for the Sanctuary, spotted a species.

"That's a crescent butterfly. We haven't seen one of them yet," Stein said, pointing to a butterfly with orange and black wings.  "Yay! The Pearl Crescent." 

It's the first of its species Stein saw that day. 

"So far today, we have five species, but we've just gotten started," said Stein. "Is that one over there?" she asked pointing to another butterfly in the distance. 

This butterfly count is Becky Troop's first. 

"I took myself to a few Naples city parks to practice and looked at pictures in books," said Troop. "But actually being out here where they're in their own habitat--it's a whole different thing, because it requires a lot of fast looking and fast identification." 

Orlando Hidalgo has participated in the butterfly counts for years and said he's noticed a trend. He said it's been about a year since he's seen a particular butterfly. 

"We haven't seen Soldier butterflies," he said. "You know it's kinda funny, because it kinda sounds like you're in the Royal Army. You have Soldiers, you have Monarchs and you have Queens!" 

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary has been doing the butterfly count for about 16 years. Stein said they've typically seen up to 44 different species per count. 

She said in recent years, the quantity of some species goes down. 

Credit Quincy J. Walters / WGCU News
Sally Stein, Director of Programs for Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, says there's been a decline of butterflies that rely on the milkweed plant. In recent years, there have been fewer milkweed plants in the Sanctuary, Stein said.

"One thing we've seen a decline in are milkweed butterflies," she said. 

Milkweed butterflies use the milkweed plant as their habitat. 

"[Butterflies like] the Queens and the Soldiers have drastically reduced in the past couple of years than what we've been seeing previously," Stein said. 

The North American Butterfly Association's counts are like a census for butterflies. And just like a census for people, the numbers indicate much more than what's on paper. 

University of Florida professor Jaret Daniels does research on butterfly ecology. He said butterflies are the perfect barometer to forecast the condition of the environment and climate. 

"They're numerous, they're easy to record, they go through their life cycles very rapidly," Daniels said. "They're tied more intimately to the vegetative community." 

So, he said, butterflies respond quickly to changes in climate, habitat loss and fragmentation. 

Daniels said when a butterfly species disappears, that's an environmental alarm--one that signals other species may be at risk, including humans. 

The summer butterfly count at Corkscrew Swamp yielded 34 species, which is 10 fewer than in previous years. 

Quincy Walters is a reporter and backup host for WGCU.