Tomorrow’s butterflies

The problem
WORLDWIDE SHIFTS IN land use and global climate change are transforming the environment at a concerning pace. Only recently have scientists become aware of just how significant the impact of our actions has been. Average global temperatures have risen sharply over the past few decades, in addition to the loss of natural habitats by conversion into agriculturally cultivated land.
Intuitively, it is clear that such intense environmental changes will have repercussions that increase extinction rates, but the world’s ecosystems are complicated, and predicting how species diversity responds to climate change is no easy matter. Improving conservation and recovering endangered species requires accurate predictions of future shifts in biodiversity.

The researcher
Jeremy Kerr’s lab, the Canadian Facility for Ecoinformatics Research, is located in the Biosciences complex on campus. There he researches changes in biodiversity across entire continents rather than in any one, local ecosystem. This means that he deals with enormous amounts of information, requiring him to be on the forefront of ecoinformatics, the science of information in ecology.

The project
In order to test whether he can accurately predict future changes in biodiversity over larger areas, Kerr pretended to go back in time. He used a macroecological computer model to predict gradients in butterfly diversity over the entire 20th century. By comparing the predicted richness in butterfly species to actual historical records of 139 species, Kerr was able to judge the predictive power of his model.

The key
Starting from the year 1900 and inputting historical data sets on climate, elevation, land cover, and human population density, Kerr was able to accurately simulate how butterfly diversity changed across Canada throughout the 20th century. In northerly areas, butterfly diversity increased while at lower latitudes it decreased. This observation suggests that macroecological theory can indeed forecast where species will be found well into the future.
The ability to predict how species diversity will respond to climate change could improve conservation planning in the 21st century.