The Boundless Survival Potential of Butterflies

Dr. Jane Hill is a professor and deputy head of the Biology Department at the University of York. Her eagerness and enthusiasm to protect ecosystems led her to explore the impacts of habitat fragmentation and climate change on temperate and tropical insect biodiversity. Research in Hill’s lab does not stop there; she also works on conserving biodiversity in oil palm plantations and constantly seeks new opportunities to engage in. 

Read on to learn about Hill’s journey as an ecologist, discover the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in a new era of networking and find out how you can help preserve butterflies and contribute to ongoing research from the comfort of your home. 

What sparked your interest in biodiversity and conservation studies?

I am not unusual in having a love of the natural world. I realised it is something I have potential in when a teacher in primary school gave us caterpillars to rear at home. I found it fascinating!

I spent a lot of time doing things outside and observing nature. During my undergraduate degree, we went on an ecology field trip and I instantly knew I made the right decision pursuing a degree in ecology. 

You are also a research theme leader for the project Resilient Ecosystems in York environmental sustainability institute (YESI). What does your role entail? 

YESI was set up about 10 years ago by the University of York. It recognises that a lot of the problems that we have as a society in conserving and managing ecosystems require an interdisciplinary approach. So people at YESI have a particular discipline (for me this is ecology), but they work with other disciplines to solve research problems.

One of the things I enjoy as a YESI member is networking and bringing together researchers with different backgrounds and niches to tackle the same problem. As a team we decide what those changes will be and how they will benefit ecosystems and societies. This interdisciplinary approach is becoming widely recognised and used. 

What have you achieved so far as a YESI member and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

We aim to help societies as much as we can. We have a project in Sumatra where we are trying to improve the livelihoods of those who produce palm oil on peatlands, and to reduce biodiversity losses. To develop palm oil plantations, the peatlands have been drained, which threatens the biodiversity of the ecosystem and the quality of life for people living nearby. 

Draining peatlands causes the peat to dry and catch fire which causes very poor air quality, destroys people’s crops and farm lands, and releases huge quantities of greenhouse gas emissions when forests catch fire. Burning of the forest drastically destroys biodiversity, hence why ecologists are working hard to preserve biodiversity in the forest that remains. 

Lots of people depend on their farms for income, so improving the drainage and ensuring the land is rewetted is greatly important. Agreement about land management can only be achieved by including the people who live on the land and are directly affected by the changes in the flooding and drainage regime. 

This is an example of conserving biodiversity through an interdisciplinary approach. It has to involve hydrologists who understand how water tables operate and social scientists who can talk to stakeholders whose livelihoods are affected. 

Oil palm on peatland.

Butterflies are imperative to the ecosystem, but there is limited public awareness about their importance. What has been done to elevate awareness and conserve butterflies?

Butterflies are intrinsically so beautiful. People value them as part of the landscape around them and enjoy spotting them in gardens. 

These insects are great to work with because there is a lot of data on them such as how their populations and distributions have changed over time. The data we use is collated and managed by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH). We are very lucky to have an organisation that facilitates data analysis. 

Also the charity Butterfly Conservation does a lot to motivate people and its members to go out and carry out data recordings. I encourage people with an interest in ecology to get involved!

Extravagant Marble White butterfly.

Butterflies face many threats such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. Which is the main threat to butterfly populations? 

There is a lot of discussion about understanding the rates and drivers of decline. Some species are witnessing a decline in number but not all are plummeting as badly as the media tends to suggest. There are a few species that are increasing due to climate change, such as Pararge aegeria, more commonly known as the Speckled Wood butterfly, which I am working on. 

Climate change is a complex issue that impacts species differently, hence I cannot say with certainty that it is currently the biggest threat. For montane species that thrive better in cooler conditions, then climate change is detrimental. The higher temperatures lead to habitats drying out and becoming too hot for these butterflies to survive so local populations can become endangered.

Habitat alteration and loss can be considered the main threat for many species that have their habitats destroyed by land-use change, and by factors that cause habitat fragmentations such as the development of new roads. 

While it is an important discussion, I am being the typical scientist here and saying it is more complicated than being able to say that x is worse than y because it depends on the species and location.

Striking Speckled Wood butterfly in Yorkshire.

How has climate change impacted populations of the Speckled wood butterfly? 

A lot of species in the UK have had a more restricted distribution in England in the past, but many of them have been spreading northwards in the last few decades. Speckled wood is a species that has colonised Yorkshire, and is continuing to shift northwards at an amazing rate of several kilometres a year. 

Climate change has also affected phenology, which is about them appearing and flying around earlier in the year rather than how their distribution has changed. A lot of species are now appearing in spring a few days earlier each year than they would normally. For some species this has been beneficial while it’s been harmful for others. 

Recently, there has been a lot of evidence of the successful interplay between genetics and ecology. What role can geneticists have in conservation? 

I am currently collaborating with geneticists to carry out genetic analysis of museum material of butterflies to understand evolutionary changes. To do this, DNA is extracted from museum material of butterflies collected in the 1880s, and full genome analysis is carried out to understand evolutionary drivers in the last 100 years. Being a geneticist is a fantastic background if you have interest in applying it to conservation.

Stunning Painted Lady butterfly.

Do you have any advice for upcoming conservationists? 

One of the things I wasn’t aware of when I finished my undergrad degree are the different careers possible if you are interested in conservation. Explore all the different options that there are. I’ve been involved in conservation in terms of carrying out the research to underpin what we choose to do to boost biodiversity and provide evidence to help understand how much biodiversity is changing. But there are many other ways to be involved too.

As a consequence of COVID-19 and the wish for society to build a greener environment there are hopefully going to be many more opportunities to bring conservation and ecology into lots of things we do. 


Main image: Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) butterfly. Credit: Dean Morley on Flickr.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Scientist, Climate Change