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Measuring anthropogenic threats on Southeast Asian butterflies

The butterfly lifecycle - from a hungry caterpillar to soaring butterfly - is one of the first biological processes children learn. These delicate creatures capture our imaginations, and provide valuable pollination and pest control in our gardens. In Indiana, we commonly see Monarch butterflies as they migrate to Mexico; there are, however, thousands of other species around the world, and many of their populations are under increasing threat due to climate change, forest loss, and illegal species collection and trade.

According to Tsun Fung Au, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography at Indiana University, along with Assistant Professor Justin Maxwell, and an international research team from Hong Kong, Vietnam, and China, efforts to alleviate these threats are hindered by inaccurate and lacking geographical distribution data; in other words, conservationists can’t protect what they can’t locate. Their research focuses on an understudied species of butterfly in tropical Asia, and takes as case study the Golden Kaiser-I-Hind (Teinopalpus aureus), a rare, swallowtail butterfly with striking yellow and green coloration.

Golden Kaiser-I-Hind butterfly

Given the lack of distribution information for this species, Au turned to Karst, IU’s high-throughput computing cluster, to run several species distribution models (SDMs) in order to estimate suitable current and future habitats under a variety of climate-change scenarios. These high-resolution, geographically extensive SDMs generate large numbers of temporary files that fill the average laptop or desktop quickly; Au credits Karst’s “almost unlimited storage, and outstanding computing power” with making it possible for him to generate the models.

The research team determined that T. aureus inhabits high-elevation ecosystems called montane forests in Southern China, Vietnam, and Laos; these ecosystems, however, are experiencing extensive deforestation and threats from climate change. Au and his colleagues found that the species will likely need to shift 140-550 meters further up in elevation in order to maintain its preferred habitat, depending on the climate change scenario. Conservation efforts vary between the three countries, with strict protection in China, moderate protection in Vietnam, and no protection in Laos. In all three countries, the team found that both recorded locations and projected distributions were poorly covered by protected areas, illustrating the importance of accurate SDMs in the effort to protect this rare, endangered butterfly.

On the flipside, this data could also contribute to the species’s demise, as T. aureus specimens sell for high prices on illegal trade markets, and thus, are subject to poaching. For the research group, this creates a dilemma regarding whether or not to publish the species distribution data, which would help humans locate, and potentially conserve, this data-deficient but trade-threatened species. Luckily, through Karst, Au and his colleagues were able to produce distribution information while also masking the exact locations of T. aureus from poachers.

Interested in learning more? Check out the group’s recent article in Biological Conservation, “Conservation of data deficient species under multiple threats: Lessons from an iconic tropical butterfly (Teinopalpus aureus).”