Photo of the White-barred Emperor butterfly (Charaxes brutus natalensis) taken in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (WikiMedia Commons).
Butterflies and moths have fascinated people for centuries. They are also important for functioning ecosystems. They provide pollination to specific species of plants; provide food for many animals—from song birds to bears; they act as a platform for science education; and they are worth millions of dollars to economies around the world.
Butterflies’ great diversity is a large part of what makes them so important. There are roughly 175,000 species of moths and butterflies worldwide. Of these, 18,000 species are butterflies with moth species making up the rest. Found across many different ecosystems, they successfully inhabit environments from the rainforests of the equator to northern tundra areas and from deserts to high mountain peaks.
Though butterflies are some of the most recognizable and well-loved insects in the world, we still know relatively little about the status of each species. Unfortunately, the information we do have is discouraging.
Recent reports from nearly every continent document unprecedented declines in a broad suite of butterflies. Studies in Europe have revealed that grassland butterfly species have declined by almost 50 percent in just two decades and three quarters of the butterflies in the United Kingdom are in decline. In the United States, five butterflies have gone extinct since 1950. They include the Xerces blue, which was driven to extinction as the city of San Francisco grew and eventually replaced its habitat with buildings and houses. Many lepidopterists across the country report that broadly distributed butterflies are in decline, too. Emblematic of this loss of once-common species is the precipitous decline in the monarch butterfly. Populations of North American monarch butterflies at overwintering sites in both Mexico and California have dropped by 90 percent since monitoring efforts began in the mid-1990s.
Butterflies face a wide range of threats including habitat loss, climate change, disease, pesticides, and invasive plants—all of which are leading to declines in many species worldwide.
The goal of the IUCN Butterfly Specialist Group is to conserve all Lepidoptera insects (butterflies and moths) and their habitats around the world by empowering assessments and practical conservation programs—including habitat restoration and management, monitoring of populations, and reintroduction projects.
Want to know more about butterflies? Check out the following links: