Winged Victory: How an Endangered Butterfly Outsmarted Climate Change

The Quino Checkerspot adapted quickly to a new environment, saving itself in the process.

Though urban development has almost wiped out the Quino Checkerspot, the butterfly has adapted its diet and habitat to keep surviving. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Liana Aghajanian is TakePart's weekend editor. Her work has appeared in ForeignPolicy.com, BBC.com, Los Angeles Times, and TheAtlantic.com.

The butterfly is one of the most sensitive species to climate change, reacting faster to a fluctuating environment than birds. But one rare variety of the insect has surprised conservationists by adapting its habitat and diet to combat the effect of rising temperatures. 

The Quino Checkerspot is a medium-size endangered butterfly once found in abundance in California and Mexico but now experiencing a dramatic population collapse thanks to agricultural and urban development along with climate change. In response, the butterflies have shifted to higher altitudes and changed their host plant so that their eggs might survive. 

The research, presented by Professor Camille Parmesan of Plymouth University, was revealed at the Butterfly Conservation’s international symposium in Southampton, England, where more than 200 leading butterfly and moth experts met earlier this month.

“Quino today is one of the happy surprises, having managed to adapt to climate change by shifting its center of abundance to higher elevation and onto a plant species that was not previously known to be a host,” Parmesan said. 

Urban development also has contributed to the Quino’s disappearance. The butterfly’s historic sage-scrub habitat has been built over, according to UC Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology. Even roads have played a role—the low-flying butterflies may have been killed by fast-moving cars, according to the Quino Checkerspot Captive Breeding Program at Vista Murrieta High School in Murrieta, Calif. Known populations are extremely small and risk extinction.

The Quino was federally listed as an endangered species in 1997; more than 100,000 acres of habitat were designated for it in California’s Riverside and San Diego Counties in 2002. The Center of Biological Diversity, a Tuscon, Ariz.-based nonprofit that advocates for endangered species, challenged the designation, arguing that the given area was not enough to ensure the survival of the species, but in 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reduced its existing habitat by 60 percent. 

Yet the land was enough for the butterflies to make strategic changes. Parmesan stressed this critical point at the symposium:

“For the Quino Checkerspot and other species of butterfly to be able to surprise us with these kinds of remarkable adaptions to climate change, humans must provide a landscape that provides these options.”

Last summer, a team of volunteers congregated in the Florida Keys to help keep another butterfly from extinction. Donning heavy jackets, gloves, and other protective gear, the team went looking for the endangered Schaus swallowtail butterfly, hoping to add it to a breeding program to save the insect from extinction. 

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