McMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

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Butterfly Population Research Impacts Wide-Ranging Ecological Theories

Biology's Stephen Matter finds broad implications in alpine butterfly research.

Date: 11/7/2008
By: Matt Cunningham
Phone: (513) 556-4190
Photos By: Stephen Matter
A saying coined by meteorologist, mathematician and chaos theorist Edward Lorenz posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can cause a tornado in Texas. Assistant Professor of Biology Stephen Matter has spent the past seven years conducting research that lends credence to this idea.

And fittingly, he works with butterflies.

Matter and a group of McMicken undergraduate students travel each summer to a site near Banff, Canada, to study the Rocky Mountain Apollo Butterfly, a species that lives in high alpine meadows. Increasing temperatures and fire suppression have allowed forests to encroach on these meadows, isolating populations of butterflies from each other.

Researchers pose for a picture in an alpine meadow.
Members of Matter's 2007 research team pose for a photo in an alpine meadow.

“These mountaintop meadows act like little islands,” he said, explaining why the sites high in the Canadian Rockies provide an ideal laboratory for the National Science Foundation-supported study.

Q) Tell us about your work.

A) I’m looking at how removing populations affects surrounding populations. Since 2001, we’ve gone into this area and removed butterfly populations from some of the meadows. That reduces the number of butterflies immigrating into the healthy populations. The experiment is designed to test basic theories about how populations react in that context.

One of the things we’ve found is that the dynamics of the remaining populations become synchronous – if one increases or decreases, other isolated populations are likely to do the same. That’s a bad thing from a spatial population perspective. If you had some kind of freak event, you could easily wipe out several populations if they are all low at the same time.

Q) Do your findings apply to other places and species?

A) All populations have some sort of spatial context. If you look at nature, it’s heterogeneous at some scale. Any population is going to be restricted to where it has what it needs.

Now that people are flying around from country to country much more often, we’re sort of upping the dispersal rate of diseases and pests across the landscape. The spread of the Emerald Ash Borer from Asia to our backyard is one example.

Over the past 20 years, ecologists have become much more focused on dispersal. These are the factors that unite populations.

Q) So how can we put to use the idea that isolated populations of butterflies, trees or people may behave in similar ways to each other?

A) Everything’s always changing, and we have to understand how organisms react to that change. This has environmental implications. If we’re going to make predictions and be able to do anything to help a population, we need to know how it is going to react to those changes.

A researcher catches butterflies in an alpine meadow.
A member of Matter's 2007 research team catches sample butterflies in the Canadian Rockies.

Q) What’s the next step in your research?

A) Now we’re going to be looking at what happens when populations re-establish themselves. When we allow the depleted butterfly populations to come back, do we see the reverse of the depletion process? Do we get something we expect or not?

Q) Is there anything else you can tell us about your research?

A) One nice perk is that undergraduates can participate in the fieldwork. I usually take three undergraduates from UC with me each year. That’s resulted in them conducting independent research projects and co-authoring a number of papers.

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