Mapping European butterflies to ensure their survival

07/29/2021 | by University of Florence | Environment Florence

A study coordinated by the University of Florence is shedding light on species diversity and distribution across our continent, providing the basis for assessing the health of butterfly populations and their ability to cope with the effects of climate change.

The photo shows a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, an orange butterfly with black spots, sitting with spread wings on two open palms.
Mapping the genetic diversity of butterfly populations is essential for their conservation. Image source: Pixabay

Creating a world where individual, societal and ecological well-being are in synergy is at the heart of the EUniWell mission. A study coordinated by the University of Florence now brings this goal a small step closer. A research project coordinated by Leonardo Dapporto, a researcher at the Department of Biology at the University of Florence, which was launched last year in all Italian national parks, has since culminated in a complete collection of genetic profiles of European butterflies, created as an open data library based on more than 20,000 sequences of the mitochondrial DNA section COI. The information collected by an international team of researchers and the resulting library form the basis for monitoring activities aimed at assessing the health of butterfly populations and other pollinating insects in order to know and protect insect biodiversity and the ecosystems in which they live.

 "Our library is probably the most complete DNA collection in the world for an entire animal group," says Dapporto, who recently reported on the project in the journal Communications Biology, part of the Nature group. "It has taken more than ten years to sequence this small segment of DNA that provides fundamental information about species membership and the history of a population. Mitochondrial DNA, which is so quick to extract compared to complete genomes, is so informative that it lends itself to DNA barcoding, an identification code for the 500 or so butterfly species living in Europe," Dapporto adds.

Based on the recording and analysis of data collected in all regions of our continent, from the North Cape to Crete, the researchers' work has expanded our knowledge of insects and brought to light differences indistinguishable to the human eye. Furthermore, the available data has confirmed that the southern European regions have a greater diversity than the northern regions and thus represent the reservoir for the biodiversity of these insects.

Dapporto explains: "During the ice ages, northern and central Europe was covered by ice and butterfly life was impossible there. After the end of the ice age, butterflies were able to colonise the northern regions. However, not all of the genetic wealth that had developed in southern Europe migrated north, but only the small proportion of individuals who, by chance, moved to the new areas made available by the retreat of the ice. This phenomenon, described as 'southern richness and northern purity', and verified by our research, tells us that biodiversity, essential for butterfly adaptation and survival, is higher in southern Europe."

 "One possibility for species to survive climate change is to use the genetic resources they already have so that at least a portion of individuals can survive in the new environment," the researcher concludes. Hence, mapping the genetic diversity of populations is essential for the conservation of butterflies and all the services they provide to ecosystems that make our own existence on this planet possible.


Stay up to date!

Subscribe to our EUniWell newsletter for regular highlights and save the dates to upcoming EUniWell events delivered straight to your inbox: