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Discovery Confirms What Butterfly Lovers Suspected

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Discovery Confirms What New Zealand Butterfly Lovers Suspected

Scientists who discovered the world's thinnest caterpillar (/Houdinia flexilissima/) confirm what NZ butterfly lovers have been saying... that the conservation status of lepidoptera species needs urgent appraisal.

"We are asking New Zealanders to count butterflies seen on regular walks this summer, and to log them into our website," said Jacqui Knight, one of the Trustees of the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust. "These figures will be compared with similar data captured in future years, and we will soon know if butterflies are on the decline, as many of our members suspect."

"We need citizen scientists everywhere to help us."

“The Butterfly Project, involving many NZ butterfly-lovers, will give us an idea of how many species we have left, and where they are located.”

South Island lepidopterist Brian Patrick is right behind the project. He talks of a tiny purple copper butterfly which now exists only in one coastal carpark.

“It’s teetering on the edge of survival,” he said. “The plight of our butterfly fauna is heavily dependant on human respect if they are to survive and thrive. Several butterflies are threatened with extinction even before they are described.”

According to the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust, NZ’s Red Admiral is another classic example.

“Renowned UK lepidopterist Nigel Venters told me that our Red Admiral is the most beautiful in the world,” Jacqui said. “But in many places you can’t find it any more, while it was once common all over the country."

“Admirals breed on stinging nettle - and gardeners and developers think this is a ‘nasty weed’ to be eradicated.”

The Trust advocates a compromise - letting it grow at the back of a garden, or in a wild spot, where it won't bother humans.

Because there are no current statistics as such as to the distribution of NZ butterflies, the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust is encouraging New Zealanders to get involved in science. The Trust's project has been supported by funding from the Mazda Foundation and Lotteries Environment & Heritage.

Tom Brereton, Head of Monitoring at Butterfly Conservation in the UK, acknowledged the Monarch Butterfly NZ Trust in recognising the need for research here.

"You have some beautiful endemic butterflies," he said, "and while there is not a huge variety, it would be a sad day if any of them were to become extinct, for whatever reason."

He said that in England, thanks to the efforts of over a thousand volunteers each year who carry out transect walks, there is a very good knowledge of the national status of butterflies - data that is vital to help conserve them.

"The monitoring has identified that England's butterflies are increasingly at risk, with worryingly 30% fewer than a decade ago," he said.

The Large Blue butterfly which became extinct in Britain in 1979 is now in a state of recovery, thanks to imported larvae and their habitat being reappraised. This summer an incredible 10,000 flew in various parts of the English countryside. That is more than have flown in Britain at any time in the last 60 years.

"Because butterflies are widely accepted as good indicators of ecosystem health, the decline of butterflies was worrying," continued Tom. "The Butterfly Project in NZ will have very important implications for biodiversity in general."

The host plant of what the scientists describe as the 'world's thinnest caterpillar' is found in one of three remaining peat bogs on the North Island. Over the years, drainage and conversion of peat bogs to pasture has resulted in habitat loss.

“We have rolled our butterfly fauna back to the mountains and far-flung places,” added Brian Patrick. “So that now many once familiar species are no longer found in cities, towns or the surrounding countryside.”

“Sadly, young New Zealanders are no longer familiar with even our most common butterflies because of the elimination of them from our cities, towns and countryside.”

“Good on the Monarch Trust for taking up this initiative.”


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