California Scientist Draws Inspiration From Butterflies

From the National Science Foundation science highlights page (

Arthur Shapiro turned to nature to cope with what he describes as a “difficult childhood.” In nature, he found more than just an escape; he found a world of wonderful flying creatures. Now a researcher with the title Distinguished Professor, Shapiro has tallied approximately 130,000 individual records of 160 butterfly species and subspecies across central California.

art_shapiro Shapiro’s trajectory highlights his passion for phenology–the study of periodic animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by variations in the fauna. After spending long hours of his childhood walking in the woods and fields around Philadelphia, he focused his interest on insects, especially Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths. As a teenager, he was already keeping phenological records of butterflies.

After receiving a Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University, Shapiro went on to teach in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California-Davis, where he has been since 1971–all the while exploring nearby sites stretching from Suisun Marsh to Donner Pass to the Sierra Valley. Over 40 years, Shapiro has made more than 6,300 trips to 11 sites he established, collecting data on butterflies.

 Shapiro’s collection represents the world’s largest set of site-specific data on butterfly populations collected by one person using a strict research protocol. An NSF Biological Databases and Informatics grant supported his creation of a digital database that covers more than 35 years of field studies, allowing rigorous analysis.

Over the years, he and his research team have studied changes in the geographic and altitudinal distribution of butterflies. As the climate warms, they observed that butterflies that normally breed at 7,000-foot elevations have shown up with increasing frequency at 9,000 feet. At the highest elevation site, more species are appearing than in the past, due to the upslope movement. However, because it takes longer for plants to move to higher altitudes, the butterflies may not have the resources they need and may not survive. At lower elevations, butterfly populations have decreased due to urbanization and landscape changes.

 Shapiro is also trying to reconstruct the history of the high-mountain butterflies on the west coast of North America through phylogeography–the geography of genetic variation. By understanding how plants and animals reacted to climate change in the past, scientists can predict how they will fare in the future.

Shapiro plans to be in the field for as long as he can because he loves what he does. “One of the most enjoyable things for me in life is walking in the mountains alone,” he says. “I communicate with nature; I get close to Heaven.”

 — Ayesha Monga Kravetz

This entry was posted in climate change, conservation, general butterfly news. Bookmark the permalink.

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