Karner Blue: warning of changes to come

The Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). Once covering a range from Minnesota to the Atlantic Ocean, it now exists only in small isolated patches throughout the Northern United States. Due to habitat loss, the species has declined by 99% in the last 100 years. A valiant habitat restoration and reintroduction effort has been conducted, but many populations are still not sustainable. In particular, those occurring in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore continue to show evidence of decline. This is the most southern population known to exist and therefore is thought to be the first population that will feel the impacts of global climate change, a kind of canary in the coal mine. This has led to considerable interest in determining the specific effects that temperature and other environmental factors have on the survival and timing of development of the Karner Blue.

And this considerable interest is what has led to my latest employment: Research Assistant in the Jessica Hellmann lab at The University of Notre Dame. The lab has been rearing experimental populations of Karners in growth chambers with controlled temperatures, along with their host plant Lupine. They have four treatments, a chamber at ambient temperature, ambient + 2 degrees, ambient + 4 degrees, and ambient + 6 degrees (the most extreme prediction under most climate change models). Each of the lab’s several thousand animals develop within one of these chambers from egg until they become adults while keeping careful records of the survival and timing of each stage of their development (I spend most of my time doing this). This data is to be used to produce a demographic model that will make predictions about how climate change will affect the Karners at each stage in their life cycle. This model will be coupled with data that is being collected by hundreds of temperature loggers deployed throughout Indiana Dunes. We can then determine if the microclimatic conditions are homogenous throughout the park, or if small refugia of favorable conditions exist that, if managed well by park staff, could save the species from extinction.

This may seem like extreme measures to protect a single species of butterfly, but the information gathered in this experiment could potentially have impacts that reach much farther than this lowly lepidopteron. Climate change has become a heated topic not only in science but in politics and many industries as well. Acceptance of climate change and its inevitability is growing. This is moving the conversation topic away from “is it happening?” to “what are we going to do about it?”. Butterflies are often thought of as indicator species, organisms that are particularly sensitive to environmental change and can serve as a warning of biological responses that are to come. This research can feed into early strategies to reduce the negative impacts of climate change, known as climate change adaptation. In addition, the Karner Blue can act as a flagship species, an animal that captivates the public and more easily generates money for habitat conservation and restoration that benefits many species. Each of these ideas can be discussed more in later posts and I will post updates as the project progresses.

I haven't seen a live adult yet, but this is it.

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