Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"Monarch butterfly count at a record low"

......From Globe & Mail:

The number of monarch butterflies in the Mexican colonies where the colourful orange and black migratory insects spend their winters has declined to the lowest on record.

The colony size totals only 1.92 hectares this winter, the equivalent of about 2½ soccer fields, compared with the previous low in 2004 of 2.19 hectares, according to the latest Mexican census.

Although the slippage between the two years is slight and is being attributed mainly to weather-related factors last year, biologists and butterfly watchers have been alarmed by the trend to significantly smaller colonies. In the 1990s, monarchs occupied an average of about nine hectares of forests each winter, but for the 10 years ended in 2009 the size had fallen to less than five hectares, according to figures issued by researchers at the University of Kansas.

"The trend has been downward for the last quite a number of years," observed Donald Davis, an Ontario-based board member of Monarch Butterfly Fund, a conservation advocacy group.

The main factor behind the decline in 2009 was the weather, with a mixture of drought and excessively high and low temperatures undermining the butterflies across the vast North American territory where they breed and migrate.

Spring temperatures in Texas, for instance, were very high last year, harming populations on the first leg of their migration north. But summer in Canada and elsewhere in the U.S. was too cold for the insects. It is rare for the butterflies to face adverse conditions across almost their entire range in a single season; in most years, poor breeding success in some regions is offset by better results elsewhere.

The latest census was conducted by WWF Mexico, a conservation advocacy group, and posted on its website...

Although weather can affect population numbers from year to year, Dr. Taylor said, the monarchs have been suffering from a loss of habitat. One problem is the massive expansion in the amount of genetically modified corn and soybeans planted by farmers. These crops have led to an increase in herbicide use, which has eliminated milkweed plants that the butterfly larvae depend on for food.

Rural land is also being converted to urban development, and once-idled farmland that may have hosted milkweed plants is being returning to production to take advantage of the demand for corn and soybean biofuels. Because of the key role of milkweed as food for the species, Dr. Taylor has been urging landowners to plant some of it to help the butterflies.

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