Jul 18
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The Big Butterfly Count 2011

The exciting big butterfly count takes place in the UK this month from 16th – 31st July and invites novices and experts alike to help out in a nationwide survey of some of our spectacular butterflies. By doing this the organisers, Butterfly Conservation, are aiming to create important records of how healthy our butterfly populations, and therefore habitats, are. Last year a staggering 10,000 people took part counting an amazing 210,000 butterflies and day-flying moths.

Comma butterfly image

Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) on flower

With over half of the UK’s 60 resident butterfly species currently threatened with extinction, the big butterfly count has the full backing of Wildscreen patron Sir David Attenborough, who had the following to say:

“Butterflies are one of the stars of the British countryside. Summer just wouldn’t be summer without them. But they continue to be in long-term decline. I urge everyone, young and old, to take part in the Big Butterfly Count to help us assess the fortunes of these bewitching creatures.”

Common blue butterfly image

Male common blue butterfly

Meadow brown butterfly image

Meadow brown butterfly

Get Involved

To take part, all you need is 15 minutes on a bright, preferably sunny, day and the free big butterfly count downloadable butterfly ID chart. You then simply count how many of each species you see and record you sightings online! Check out the big butterfly count ‘how to’ section for further details on how to carry out your survey. Some of the star participants of your survey might include the red admiral, small tortoiseshell, common blue or green hairstreak butterfly.

Green hairstreak butterfly image

Green hairstreak butterfly

Fancy joining in? Let us know how you get on!

For more information on butterfly conservation, visit the butterfly conservation website.

Fancy finding out more about other marvellous mini-beasts? Take a look at our new education resource.

Becky Moran,  ARKive Media Researcher

May 25
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Spotlight on: Mimicry

In their constant struggle against predators, animals adopt a fascinating variety of strategies to avoid being eaten. Some animals may attack their predators like these African buffalo chasing away a lion, others evolve unusual body parts so they cannot be swallowed, like this porcupine pufferfish, some blend into their habitat, such as this Arctic hare, while others may try to simply avoid capture by seeing, smelling or hearing their predator before they are detected.

Photo of plain tiger (left) next to mimic butterfly (Hypolimnas missipus)

Plain tiger (left) next to mimic butterfly (Hypolimnas missipus)

Some devious animals, however, try to avoid being eaten by tricking their predators into thinking they are either dangerous or distasteful. Such strategies commonly take the form of ‘mimicry’.

What is mimicry?

Mimicry is when one species benefits from evolving a feature displayed by another species. This feature could be anything from colour or body shape, through to scent or behaviour.

Mimicry can be loosely classified into four types: defensive, aggressive, reproductive and automimicry.

Let me explain….

Defensive mimicry

In defensive mimicry, a mimicking animal tricks a predator into treating it as a something different. The most well studied forms of defensive mimicry are Batesian mimicry and Müllerian mimicry.

In Batesian mimicry, an animal mimics a trait of another organism, such that predators think it is inedible or dangerous. Often totally harmless animals develop the shape or colouration of other animals that possess a dangerous or foul-tasting toxin.

Photo of hooded malpolon with head raised

The hooded malpolon showing cobra-like defensive behaviour

For example, the hooded malpolon, or false cobra, is only mildly venomous, but it mimics the hood and defensive displays of the extremely venomous and dangerous cobras so that predators avoid it.

Photo of honey bee asleep during cold weather

Black and yellow warning colouration of the honey bee

In Müllerian mimicry, two or more species, which share anti-predator traits such as toxins, develop similar warning colourations. When a predator first eats one of these distasteful species, it soon learns to avoid eating others with the same colourations. This explains why so many bees and wasps have black and yellow stripes.

However, only female wasps and bees have stingers, and the males are harmless, which is actually an example of automimicry, leading us onto our next example.

Automimicry

Photo of African burrowing python

African burrowing boa showing similarities between the head and tail

Automimicry occurs within a single species. Male wasps are protected from predators by appearing like the venomous females. Other examples include where one part of an animal’s body resembles another. The African burrowing boa, for example, has a similar looking head and tail which confuses predators and directs their attack away from the more vulnerable head.

Aggressive mimicry

It is not just prey species that have evolved cunning tactics to deceive their predators. Some equally clever predators over the course of time have developed fascinating ways of tricking their unwitting prey.

Photo of Nepenthes holdenii upper pitcher

Close up of Nepenthes holdenii showing nectar-secreting lip

Aggressive mimicry describes predators, as well as parasites, which share the same characteristics as a harmless species, allowing them to avoid detection by their prey. Nepenthes pitcher plants, for example, secret nectar near the lip to attract feeding insects, which then slip into the pitcher and are slowly dissolved by digestive enzymes.

The cuckoo, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, which act as foster parents for the cuckoo chick, also displays aggressive mimicry. The eggs of the cuckoo bare a striking resemblance to those of the host parents. The unsuspecting host bird then incubates and feeds the impostor.   

Reproductive mimicry

Photo of fly orchid

Insect-imitating flowers of the fly orchid

Aside from predator-prey interactions, in reproductive mimicry, mimicking species improve their reproductive success by tricking other species. Some of the best examples of reproductive mimicry are found in orchids.

The fly orchid has flowers that mimic the insects that pollinate it. Male insects land on the flowers, thinking they are female insects, and make attempts to copulate. Inadvertently, the insect brushes the flower’s pollen sacs, which attach to the insect. When the insect lands on another flower, it pollinates this flower with the other’s pollen.

Give us your examples!

The examples I’ve described here are just some of the hundreds of thousands of curious species that have evolved devious and deceitful ways of tricking their predators or prey to increase their chance of survival. If you know of any other equally crafty species, then let us know, or simply look through the ARKive collection and see if you can spot any mimics.

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

May 16
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In the News: British butterflies bounce back

Some of Britain’s most threatened butterflies are showing promising signs of recovery after decades of decline, according to a new study.

Good news for some butterflies

The new data comes from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, which has been monitoring changes in butterfly populations across the United Kingdom since 1976. The biggest winner of 2010 was the wood white, which has suffered a 96% decline since the 1970s, but whose population increased six-fold last year.

Photo of wood white butterfly on common spotted orchid

The wood white butterfly population increased six-fold in 2010.

The marsh fritillary, in serious decline since the 1950s, more than doubled its numbers between 2009 and 2010, and recent reports suggest that marsh fritillaries are also thriving so far in 2011.

Although Britain’s butterflies remain in long-term decline, the populations of three-quarters of threatened species increased in 2010. This change in fortunes has been put down to targeted conservation action, combined with better weather last year after a series of disastrously wet summers. Butterfly experts hope that if Britain experiences a similar summer this year, some of the country’s most threatened species could continue to make a significant recovery.

Photo of female marsh fritillary butterfly

The marsh fritillary, another butterfly species which did well in 2010.

According to Dr Tom Brereton, Head of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation, “Over the last decade, Butterfly Conservation has developed a large number of landscape scale projects… to improve and restore habitats for threatened butterflies. This has particularly helped the marsh fritillary and more recently the wood white and some other species too are beginning to recover. It shows these projects are working, given time. This is extremely welcome news and shows that we can reverse butterfly losses if the effort can be maintained.

Many butterflies still under threat

Unfortunately, it was not good news for all species. One of the UK’s rarest butterflies, the Lulworth skipper, had its worst year on record in 2010, as did one of the most common species, the meadow brown. It was also a bad year for migrants, whose numbers were down by 90% from 2009.

Photo of Lulworth skipper feeding

The Lulworth skipper has declined by 93% over the last decade. Habitat management for other butterflies may actually be detrimental to this species.

Although climate change may be benefitting some species due to warmer summers, it could also be bad news for others which need cooler conditions or are unable to adapt to rapid change.

Monitoring long-term trends

More than three-quarters of British butterfly species have declined in recent decades, and nearly half are now seriously threatened. Although many species are still under threat, the results from 2010 come as welcome news for butterfly conservation, and show the importance of long-term monitoring and conservation work.

Photo of painted lady butterfly

The painted lady arrived in the UK in large numbers in 2009, but there was no repeat of this massive immigration last year.

Dr Marc Botham, a butterfly ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said, “The continued dedication of thousands of volunteers enables us to analyse both short and long-term trends in the abundance of butterflies. Butterflies are highly sensitive to how our countryside is changing and the UKBMS data has revealed how butterflies are already being impacted by climate change as well as whether our conservation measures are working.

Find out more at the Butterfly Conservation website.

View photos and videos of butterflies and moths on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Dec 10
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In the News: Europe’s grassland butterflies in steep decline

According to a new study by Butterfly Conservation Europe, butterflies normally found in flower-rich grasslands are in steep decline, indicating a much wider loss of European biodiversity. 

Adonis blue

The Adonis blue (Lysandra bellargus), a butterfly of calcareous (chalky) grasslands.

Data collected from 3,000 sites in 15 countries has shown that populations of at least 17 European butterfly species have declined by an average of 70 percent in the last 20 years. This worrying figure points to a much wider loss of biodiversity in the meadows of Europe, with grassland butterfly populations used as indicators for the overall health of grassland ecosystems. 

Lulworth skipper

The Lulworth skipper (Thymelicus acteon), a small butterfly in decline.

Sustainably managed semi-natural grasslands support high levels of biodiversity, including plants, butterflies and many other insect groups; however, the abandonment of traditional livestock-grazing and hay-making practices in favour of more intensive, and more profitable, farming methods have led to many species disappearing from these areas altogether. 

The sharp declines in butterfly populations are largely due to the rapid economic and social changes that have taken place in Europe over the last few decades. Traditional farming methods in particular have changed drastically, with land that had been farmed for generations being abandoned where it is unable to support modern agricultural practices, or turned over to intensive farming, resulting in widespread deterioration of the once diverse grasslands. Many young people are also turning away from farming and moving to the cities, leaving behind the rural communities and the traditional methods of managing the meadows. 

Small copper butterfly

The small copper (Lycaena phlaeus), one of the species used for the Grassland Butterfly Indicator.

A change in the EU agricultural policy is necessary if butterflies are to once again flourish on European meadows. Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive at Butterfly Conservation (UK) is advocating a change to farming in areas of High Nature Value (HNV), which are vital for the survival of grassland butterflies across Europe, such as the alpine meadows, pasture and steppe in eastern and southern Europe, Spain and Portugal.  

The redirection of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding to support sustainable farming of HNV areas is considered by butterfly conservationists as vital to halting further losses and supporting the recovery of grassland butterflies in Europe. Under a HNV approach, farmers would be encouraged to return to the traditional methods of grassland management, in return for better support and incentives under new European policy, which could be decided in the next round of CAP reform in 2013. Butterfly Conservation Europe is also pressing for grassland butterflies to be adopted as agricultural indicators, incorporating them into EU policies for monitoring the health of important ecosystems. 

To find out more about butterfly conservation in Europe, see: 

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author

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