Revealed: The secrets of UK's migrating painted lady butterfly population
Thursday 18 October 2012
The secrets of the UK's migrating painted lady butterfly population have been revealed by scientists who have discovered where they go in autumn.
The insect flies from the continent each summer to the UK, but experts have not known until now whether they headed south again in autumn, like the closely-related red admiral, or if they died in the UK.
With the help of 60,000 public sightings across Europe, including efforts by 10,000 British volunteers, and highly sensitive radar surveying during the mass migration of painted ladies in 2009, the mystery has been solved.
Scientists found the painted lady migrated south in autumn, but high in the sky out of sight of human observers, averaging an altitude of 500 metres (1,600ft) and clocking up speeds of 30mph by selecting favourable conditions.
The species undertakes a phenomenal 9,000-mile round trip from tropical Africa right up to the Arctic Circle, the researchers from Butterfly Conservation, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, York University and Rothamsted Research discovered.
The entire length of the journey is not undertaken by a single individual but by successive generations, so that painted ladies returning to Africa in autumn are several generations removed from those which left the continent in the spring.
But Richard Fox, surveys manager at Butterfly Conservation, said many of the individual butterflies arriving in the UK will have come as far as from north Africa and home-grown painted ladies will head there in the autumn.
He said: "The extent of the annual journey undertaken by the painted lady is astonishing.
"This tiny creature weighing less than a gram with a brain the size of a pin head and no opportunity to learn from older, experienced individuals, undertakes an epic intercontinental migration in order to find plants for its caterpillars to eat.
"Once thought to be blindly led, at the mercy of the wind, into an evolutionary dead end in the lethal British winter, this amazing combination of mass-participation citizen science and cutting-edge technology has shown painted ladies to be sophisticated travellers."
He said radar in Hampshire used to track the butterflies could tell the direction they were travelling in, their speed and details of their mass and shape.
Dr Jason Chapman, a researcher at Rothamsted Research which operated the radar, said: "The apparent lack of a return migration of the late-summer generation of painted lady butterflies was one of the greatest enigmas in insect migration ecology.
"But through a combination of traditional monitoring by butterfly enthusiasts and new radar techniques, we have finally solved this long-standing puzzle
Feed ducks frozen peas instead of stale bread, charity asks
Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Boiling ourselves to death: Temperatures on Earth hit another record high, here’s the projected effect on humans
Greenham Reach: The families trying to prove that compact, ecological farms can make a living
Have you heard 'the hum'? Mystery of Earth's low droning noise could now be solved
- 1 Games of Thrones actor Lena Headey makes emotional promise to her unborn daughter
- 2 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 3 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 4 Female Muay Thai champion hustles coaches to give them a beating
- 5 16-year-old girl beaten and burned alive by lynch mob in Rio Bravo, Guatemala
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
Report finds that Britain's wages are the most unequal in Europe
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...
£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...