In a rare phenomenon, Monarch butterflies are being found as far North as central Alberta this summer in what biologists are calling the species’ biggest movement north in recorded history.
The Monarch can normally be found anywhere in Canada from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island, but they rarely venture as far North as Edmonton. This year they have been spotted in all 10 provinces, migrating home from their winter grounds in Mexico.
“Monarch butterflies are being seen hundreds of kilometres [further] north than usual,” says Jeremy Kerr, a conservation biologist with the University of Ottawa who studies butterfly migration patterns.
We are seeing very many more butterflies this year than we normally would see.
— Biologist Jeremy Kerr
“They’re as far north now as little towns to the northwest of Edmonton, and that’s really far outside of where they normally make it to in the summertime.”
Other butterfly species have also been found in areas that would normally be too cold for them to survive, and populations of some species, such as the Red Admiral, have grown to 10 times their normal numbers this year, says Kerr.
“Red Admirals were out in huge numbers, just unprecedented in the history of this country. No one has ever seen anything like it. We’re seeing the same phenomenon with lots of other species.”
“We are seeing very many more butterflies this year than we normally would see.”
The unusual patterns are largely being attributed to this year’s unseasonably warm winter and spring, which kick-started the butterfly migration in March—about a month earlier than usual—and boosted survival rates and overall populations.
Kerr says the butterflies have attracted plenty of attention from both scientists and the general public, and he helped set up a website, ebutterfly.ca, so that people can post butterfly sightings and research online.
The site has attracted almost 20,000 viewers since the beginning of spring, including about 1,000 users who regularly contribute their records and sightings to the site.
“There is an enormous amount of interest in butterflies this year, and it’s certainly got to do with this incredible year we’re having in terms of numbers of butterflies that are outside for anybody to see,” says Kerr.
“It’s our opportunity to provide citizens with an outlet to do something constructive with what they’re seeing in the world around them.”
But butterflies are not faring as well in other parts of the world such as the United Kingdom, where iconic broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough recently warned they are facing one of the worst years on record after an extremely wet spring and summer.
Attenborough called on Brits to join the “Big Butterfly Count,” a survey that uses butterfly population data to assess the health of the environment.
Kerr says butterflies act as a “natural alarm bell” because they are acutely sensitive to temperature shifts and changes in their migration patterns reflect broader changes in the environment, such as climate change.
“Butterflies everywhere are responding to an incredibly unusual series of environmental changes that are, I think, a warning for what we might expect in the future,” he says.
“We tend not to think of them as the main kind of impact of climate change, but as an indication of some of the ways that climate change is affecting biodiversity.”
Kerr adds that “thousands” of other species such as birds and trees have been observed moving north due to rising temperature patterns, which may upset delicate ecosystems as invasive species compete with native flora and fauna.
“Basically, nature is making a run for the North Pole,” he says.
“The reason that this is happening is that the weather is getting so crazy that they’re no longer limited in the north by things like how cold it gets in the wintertime, so they’re going further and further north all the time.”
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