Climate Change and Caterpillars

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For the past 12 years, Earthwatch scientist, Dr. Lee Dyer has led teams of volunteers to Arizona and New Orleans, USA, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica, and Napo, Ecuador to study the intricate relationship between caterpillars and their environment. Their findings not only contribute to our knowledge of one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, but are also leading to an exciting new development in the field of ecology itself.

Namely, this is the concept of ‘Interaction Diversity’, which is a measure of the diversity of interactions between species, rather than simply the number of species. Interaction diversity has a far stronger relationship to the stability, productivity and function of ecosystems than species diversity alone, and also highlights a much clearer relationship to environmental change. This concept therefore has important implications for our understanding of biodiversity, especially in the face of future climatic change.

This study has also involved the compilation of natural history data for over a thousand caterpillars, plants, and parasitic flies, many of which have been recorded for the first time. It is not known how many species of caterpillar exist, but an estimated 3.5 million remain to be discovered. Such data highlight the scale of the challenge we face to protect and conserve biological diversity, and it is clear that Dr. Dyer’s work to improve our understanding of biodiversity will make extremely valuable contributions to these efforts in an uncertain climatic future.

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