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An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales

Tue, 01/10/2019 - 09:26
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An extra vegetarian option cuts meat consumption without denting food sales A study of over 94,000 cafeteria meal choices has found that doubling the vegetarian options – from one in four to two in four – reduced the proportion of meat-rich purchases by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales.

The results are from the first major study to look at whether tweaking food availability can “nudge” people towards better decision-making for both human health and preservation of the planet.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge's departments of Zoology, Geography and Public Health gathered over a year’s worth of mealtime sales data from three Cambridge college cafeterias. Two provided data on days with different menu set-ups, and a third college helped the researchers conduct a “choice architecture” experiment.

The research team found the biggest increases in plant-based dining among the most carnivorous quartile of customers: those who had consistently picked meat or fish prior to the addition of a second veggie option.

Moreover, the team detected no “rebound effect”. Opting for a vegetarian lunch did not make a compensatory meat-heavy dinner any more likely. The findings are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Diets full of meat are leading drivers of species loss and climate change, say scientists. Livestock and aquacultures behind meat, fish, dairy and eggs are responsible for some 58% of the greenhouse gas created by global food, and take up 83% of farmland despite contributing just 18% of the world’s calorie intake.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

Cattle raising in the Amazon forest. Credit: Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

“Shifting to a more plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways of reducing the environmental footprint of food,” said study lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist and PhD candidate from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. 

“Replacing some meat or fish with more vegetarian options might seem obvious, but as far as we know no one had tested it before. Solutions that seem obvious don’t always work, but it would appear that this one does.”

Co-author Theresa Marteau, Professor of Behaviour and Health at Cambridge, said: “Education is important but generally ineffective at changing diets. Meat taxes are unpopular. Altering the range of available options is more acceptable, and offers a powerful way to influence the health and sustainability of our diets.”

The researchers have contributed to food policy at the University of Cambridge, where the catering service has reduced meat options – including the removal of beef and lamb, the biggest contributors to meat-related greenhouse gas – and increased the range of vegetarian meals.

Earlier this year, University cafeterias (separate from the colleges) announced a 33% reduction in carbon emissions per kilogram of food purchased, and a 28% reduction in land use per kilogram of food purchased, as a result of the changes.

“Universities are increasingly at the forefront of providing plant-based options that are affordable and delicious, making it easier to choose a more sustainable diet,” said Garnett. “I think that’s what really has to change.”

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.

A vegetarian burger being served in the Main Dining Hall of the University Centre at Cambridge.

“We’re not saying all cafeterias and restaurants should turn vegan overnight. But if food were the film industry, vegetarian meals need to land more starring roles, and meat dishes have got to stop hogging the limelight.”

A video from the 2017 launch of Cambridge's Sustainable Food Policy, which set out the University’s intentions to minimise the environmental impact of its catering operations. It includes interviews with some of those involved, such as researcher Emma Garnett.

The new study had an observational and experimental component. For the observational, two colleges provided data on weekday term-time meal selections at both lunch and dinner during 2017.

Meals were purchased using university cards topped up with credit, allowing researchers to analyse anonymised data that tracked what individual diners ate for each meal on every day.

This dataset contained 86,932 hot meals (excluding salads and sandwiches) and 2,140 repeat diners. The range varied between occasional days with no vegetarian or vegan dishes, to days where 75% of the options were veggie.

"One of the exciting things about this study is the scale of information on individual diners' choices,” said co-author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at Cambridge. “It allowed us to test for rebound effects, when customers compensate for less meat at lunch by eating more in the evening. We found little evidence of this.”

Researchers built statistical models to show that doubling the vegetarian offering, from a quarter to half of possible meals, increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 62% in the first college, and 79% in the second college. (A real-terms increase of almost 15 percentage points in both colleges.)

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Two vegetarian dishes on offer in the cafeteria of 'College C' - where researchers worked with the catering team to conduct a "choice experiment".

Caterers at a third college worked with researchers to conduct an experiment during the autumn term of 2017: lunchtime menus that alternated fortnightly between one veggie option (control) and two (experiment). Doubling availability increased the proportion of vegetarian sales by 41%, or almost 8 percentage points.

Data from the summer term allowed researchers to assign 121 regular diners to a quartile based on their vegetarian meal consumption. “We discovered that changing the relative availability of vegetarian options had the strongest effect on those who usually eat more meat," said Balmford*.

Garnett argues that vegetarian options have been an “afterthought” on menus for too long. “Flexitarianism is on the rise. Our results show that caterers serving more plant-based options are not just responding to but also reshaping customer demand.”   

“Simple changes such as increasing the proportion of vegetarian options could be usefully scaled up, helping to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.  

* Least vegetarian quartile: likelihood of picking a veggie meal, going from 25% to 50% veg availability:
College A (observation): 6.2% to 18.1%
College B (observation): 2.3% to 8.2%
College C (experiment): 10.5% to 17.4%
(All data, including the names of the Cambridge colleges involved in the study, have been anonymised as part of the scientific research.)

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First major study on “nudging” people towards sustainable diets shows replacing a meat or fish dish with another veggie option in college cafeterias dramatically increases herbivorous dining.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ZoologyDepartment of GeographyDepartment of Public Health and Primary CareCambridge Conservation InitiativeUniversity of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI)People (our academics and staff): Emma GarnettAndrew BalmfordTheresa MarteauSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): VegetariandietsustainabilitySustainable Earth

Women in STEM: Dr Alexis Braun

Thu, 26/09/2019 - 07:00

The major turning point in my career as a scientist happened only a couple of years ago during my first postdoc. I was given the freedom to develop my own project with the support of my current boss/mentor, Professor David M Glover. I was evaluating whether or not I wanted to continue on in academia when I approached him with a project idea and asked if he could teach me how to be a primary investigator. He taught me how to write a grant and we were eventually successful in getting funding for my project. With his advice, I have been given the freedom to design my own project and choose the methodology I use in answering the questions that I have. He also supported me in mentoring students and is currently helping me build the career I want. Without this opportunity, I would not have gotten the chance to see if the track I was on was what I really wanted.

I initially became interested in biology growing up in my First Nations/Native American community in the Great Bear Rainforest. My grandfather taught me about many of the animals and plants in the region we are from (Bella Coola, Canada). I continued on this interest throughout my undergraduate studies and into my postgraduate studies, where I became more focused on animal development. I continued on the academic route and became a scientist because I could not picture my life any other way. I cannot think of any other career that offers the type of freedom and creativity that science offers. To anyone interested in becoming a scientist, I will pass on the same advice that I was given: if you love it then do it. Nothing is ever set in stone, if you try something and don't like it then you can always do something else. Additionally, don't be afraid of not fitting the mould. Anyone can be a scientist.

I switched fields of study between all of the degrees that I have obtained, as well as during my postdocs. You are never stuck studying only one thing. I am Canadian, and I completed a double major in Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Victoria. I moved to Sweden and completed my Masters in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. I completed my PhD in developmental biology in the Department of Zoology in Cambridge with Dr Isabel Palacios. I stayed in Cambridge to do my first postdoc in the Department of Genetics with Dr Yuu Kimata, studying cell cycle regulation and the role of centrosomes within the female germline of Drosophila. I am now on my second postdoc in the lab of Professor David M Glover, still in the Department of Genetics. I am now focused on female reproduction and evolution.

My research sets out to understand one of the fundamental principles of animal fertility, asexual reproduction, using different species of Drosophila as a model. I am interested in this topic because although there are huge differences in the development and intimate body structure that animals have, there are key principles that all animals abide by during their development and how they produce offspring. I hope that my research will help understand fertility in animals and potentially aid in conservation efforts.

One of the unexpected fun parts of my job is collaborating with friends who have complementary skill sets. Since starting my current project, I have found that I enjoy discussing my work more and have built new collaborations with people doing a wide variety of different work. These collaborations have helped my work but also made me enjoy it more fully.

Cambridge is a great place to study and work because of the freedom I have always felt to research 'out-of-the-box' things. In my experience, there is a respect for independent thought and creativity that I have not noticed to such a degree in other universities. A lot of other competitive research institutes put emphasis on productivity, whereas here I feel like there is a lot more emphasis on the overall question one is approaching. There are also very few places in the world where you have access to great thinkers in so many different disciplines. I feel like I can talk to anyone because of the sense of community here. Additionally, there are also amazing facilities and huge support for fledgling scientists.

Dr Alexis Braun is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Genetics. Here, she tells us about the importance of mentors, how her research might aid in conservation efforts, and how growing up in a First Nations community in Canada spurred her interest in biology. 

Alexis Braun


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Yes

‘Game-changing’ research could solve evolution mysteries

Wed, 11/09/2019 - 18:00

Researchers identified an almost complete set of proteins, a proteome, in the dental enamel of the rhino and the genetic information discovered is one million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a 700,000-year-old horse.

The findings by scientists from the University of Copenhagen and St John’s College, University of Cambridge, are published in Nature. They mark a breakthrough in the field of ancient biomolecular studies and could solve some of the biggest mysteries of animal and human biology by allowing scientists to accurately reconstruct evolution from further back in time than ever before.

Professor Enrico Cappellini, a specialist in Palaeoproteomics at the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen, and first author on the paper, said: “For 20 years ancient DNA has been used to address questions about the evolution of extinct species, adaptation and human migration but it has limitations. Now for the first time we have retrieved ancient genetic information which allows us to reconstruct molecular evolution way beyond the usual time limit of DNA preservation.   DNA data that genetically tracks human evolution only covers the last 400,000 years. But the lineages that led to modern humans and to the chimp – the living species genetically closest to humans – branched apart around six to seven million years ago which means scientists currently have no genetic information for more than 90 per cent of the evolutionary path that led to modern humans.
Scientists also don’t know what the genetic links are between us and extinct species such as Homo erectus – the oldest known species of human to have had modern human-like body proportions – because everything that is currently known is almost exclusively based on anatomical information, not genetic information.
Researchers have now used ancient protein sequencing – based on ground-breaking technology called mass spectrometry – to retrieve genetic information from the tooth of a 1.77 million year old Stephanorhinus – an extinct rhinoceros which lived in Eurasia during the Pleistocene. Researchers took samples of dental enamel from the ancient fossil which was discovered in Dmanisi, Georgia, and used mass spectrometry to sequence the ancient protein and retrieved genetic information previously unobtainable using DNA testing. 
Tooth enamel is the hardest material present in mammals. In this study researchers discovered the set of proteins it contains lasts longer than DNA and is more genetically informative than collagen, the only other protein so far retrieved from fossils older than one million years.
Professor Jesper V. Olsen, head of the Mass Spectrometry for Quantitative Proteomics Group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research, University of Copenhagen, and co-corresponding author on the paper, said: “Mass spectrometry-based protein sequencing will enable us to retrieve reliable and rich genetic information from mammal fossils that are millions of years old, rather than just thousands of years old. It is the only technology able to provide the robustness and accuracy needed to sequence tiny amounts of protein this old.”
Professor Cappellini added: “Dental enamel is extremely abundant and it is incredibly durable, which is why a high proportion of fossil records are teeth. “We have been able to find a way to retrieve genetic information that is more informative and older than any other source before, and it’s from a source that is abundant in the fossil records so the potential of the application of this approach is extensive.”
Lead author on the paper Professor Eske Willerslev, who holds positions at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, and is director of The Lundbeck Foundation Centre for GeoGenetics, Globe Institute, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, at the University of Copenhagen, said: “This research is a game-changer that opens up a lot of options for further evolutionary study in terms of humans as well as mammals. It will revolutionise the methods of investigating evolution based on molecular markers and it will open a complete new field of ancient biomolecular studies.”
This rearranging of the evolutionary lineage of a single species may seem like a small adjustment but identifying changes in numerous extinct mammals and humans could lead to massive shifts in our understanding of the way the world has evolved.
The team of scientists is already implementing the findings in their current research. The discovery could enable scientists across the globe to collect the genetic data of ancient fossils and to build a bigger, more accurate picture of the evolution of hundreds of species including our own.     Reference: Enrico Cappellini et al. 'Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny.' Nature (2019). DOI: ​10.1038/s41586-019-1555-y   Originally published by St John's College, Cambridge  

An evolution revolution has begun after scientists extracted genetic information from a 1.7 million-year-old rhino tooth – the largest and oldest genetic data to ever be recorded.
 

This new analysis of ancient proteins from dental enamel will start an exciting new chapter in the study of molecular evolution.Enrico CappelliniMirian Kiladze, Georgian National MuseumStephanorhinus skull from Dmanisi


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Yes

The butterflies are coming

Thu, 25/07/2019 - 06:00
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Climate change poses a major threat to butterflies but a new generation of Cambridge scientists is working to unlock their secrets and help them thrive.

Three-quarters of butterfly species found in the UK have been in decline since the 1970s, and many species can now only be found in a small fraction of their historical range. Equally alarming patterns have been reported across the globe, including in the Netherlands and California.

There are, however, glimmers of hope, especially from the British Isles where climate change is expected to create habitats for existing species and those being driven north.

Butterflies are well served at Cambridge, being the focus of three research groups in the University’s Zoology Department: Radiating Butterflies, Insect Ecology and Butterfly Genetics. Led by Professor Chris Jiggins, the latter studies New World tropical butterflies as a model to understand evolution’s predictability, and the genetic and ecological causes of speciation.

While this research has broad applications in the study of genetics, by unlocking information about how butterflies mate, communicate and adapt to their changing environment, the group’s discoveries are likely to inform conservation work.

Kathy Darragh, a PhD student in the group, focuses on the role played by pheromones in mate choice and speciation. Darragh has already spent years working in the field in Ecuador, Columbia and Panama but currently works with lab populations of Heliconius butterflies in Cambridge.

Kathy Darragh (right) with colleagues in Panama. Photo courtesy of Kathy Darragh

Kathy Darragh (right) with colleagues in Panama. Photo courtesy of Kathy Darragh

“You can rear them under different temperature conditions and study how that affects their development,” Darragh explains. “How the following generations respond to the treatments allows us to study evolution in action. We can then learn more about the genetics of adaptation to the environment and that could inform conservation decisions”.

Kathy Darragh inspects a Heliconius butterfly raised by the Butterfly Genetics group in Cambridge

Kathy Darragh inspects a Heliconius butterfly raised by the Butterfly Genetics group in Cambridge

Butterfly conservation scientists Dr Andrew Bladon and Matt Hayes agree. “If you want to understand how and why butterflies respond to temperature, you’ve got to know what’s going on in the genetics,” says Bladon. “There’s bound to be increasing collaboration to answer these sorts of questions.”

Bladon is in the middle of an ambitious, high-stakes project investigating how individual butterflies from different species have responded to temperature change over the last ten years. “I’m interested in how this impacts on their choice of habitat,” Bladon explains, “whether it affects their behaviour; and what all of this means for their conservation.”

Andrew Bladon in Cambridge

Andrew Bladon in Cambridge

“Globally, climate change is bad news for butterflies but it looks like the opposite will be the case in the British Isles. For the foreseeable future, we’re going to gain more butterfly species than we’re going to lose. The species we’re gaining are being pushed out of Spain and France so we need to be ready to have optimal habitat for them as well as for the species that are already here.

“We can’t be complacent. We've got such a fragmented landscape and habitat management is generally so poor that it's just not supporting species well enough. This is something that we can probably address more easily than climate change itself which, let me be clear, also needs to be tackled. But we can create more reserves, we can manage them better, we can work out how to look after the wider landscape in a more wildlife friendly way. The aim of my research is to work out how we should go about that.”

“We’re used to the idea that you manage habitat to create short grassland or scrubby patches but we’re not used to management for temperature and that’s potentially really important.” Andrew Bladon

Across a landscape, at a fine scale, temperatures can vary dramatically. And landscapes that are more diverse in their topography are better at retaining species over ten or twenty years.

“The hypothesis suggests that’s because they have more diverse microclimates and so more species can thrive within them,” Bladon explains. “But we don’t really know what individual species are seeking out or what impact different management actions have on temperature.”

In 2018, Bladon led a team of researchers and volunteers recording information about more than 12,000 butterflies at four Wildlife Trust reserves in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire.

Photo: Andrew Bladon

Photo: Andrew Bladon

As part of this painstaking work, the body temperatures of 2,073 butterflies were compared with air temperature. “It’s well known that butterflies bask in the sun with their wings open to warm up,” Bladon says, “but the effectiveness of this strategy varies considerably between species. That impacts on how active they can be.

“On a cold day, the species which are good at heating themselves tend to be active earlier, which means feeding, mating and defending their territory. The most adept regulators of body temperature relative to air temperature are likely to handle climate change better.”

This ongoing research should help to predict which species are most vulnerable but perhaps more importantly, Bladon is revealing the crucial role that microclimates play in helping butterflies to warm and cool themselves. Even within study areas the size of a football pitch, Bladon has found butterfly populations concentrated in pockets of air at a higher or lower temperature than the surrounding air.

These microclimates are created by myriad topographical factors including elevation, aspect and slope as well as vegetation type and density. Bladon says: “Once we’ve fully analysed all of this data, we’ll be well placed to advise the reserves and policy-makers on how to create, restore and maintain the microclimates which help different species of butterfly to thrive.”

But Bladon isn’t just interested in improving individual reserves: he’s trying to inform and encourage the creation of habitat ‘stepping stones’ across the British Isles to help butterflies disperse and extend their range as the climate warms.

“If you look at climatic suitability, we should have seen massive range expansion in loads of species across the UK. We've seen that to an extent and there's always a bit of a time lag but the climate is changing faster than species can keep up with. We need to provide this network of habitats or they’ll get stranded and their populations will collapse.”

Andrew Bladon takes the body temperature of a butterfly. Photo: Helen Cole

Andrew Bladon takes the body temperature of a butterfly. Photo: Helen Cole

Small Copper butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Small Copper butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Totternhoe Chalk Quarry in Bedfordshire, one of the key sites studied by Bladon's team. Totternhoe is owned and managed by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Totternhoe Chalk Quarry in Bedfordshire, one of the key sites studied by Bladon's team. Totternhoe is owned and managed by the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Male Chalkhill Blue butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Male Chalkhill Blue butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Matt Hayes’ current work complements Bladon’s with a specific focus on what has long been one of the UK’s most endangered butterfly species: the Duke of Burgundy.

Matt Hayes in Cambridge

Matt Hayes in Cambridge

A small spring-flyer with chequered wings, the Duke saw its abundance fall by 42% from 1976-2014, but at the end of this period, it started to make a remarkable recovery - between 2005 and 2014, abundance increased by 67%.

“A warming regional climate may well have contributed to this,” says Hayes, “but improved habitat management has also played an important role.”

For three years, Hayes and colleagues from the Zoology Department and the Wildlife Trust have been investigating the effect that air temperature has on the flight behaviour of the species’ adult males as well as their ability to thermoregulate through their behaviour.

Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Photo: Matt Hayes

Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Photo: Matt Hayes

“The male Duke of Burgundy is very territorial,” Hayes explains fondly. “They defend one metre square patches of sunlight in very sheltered areas of chalk grassland. We found that these butterflies aren’t very effective at regulating their body temperature behaviourally and so they are particularly dependent on the habitat features which offer these relatively high temperatures.”

The research, published recently in the Journal of Insect Conservation, suggests that these conditions enable the kind of energetic flight which male Duke of Burgundy butterflies rely on to defend their territory and intercept mates. “Our findings have useful implications for conservation,” says Hayes.

“The Duke has been a poor disperser, so if it’s going to take advantage of a warmer climate and extend its range north, it will need carefully managed habitat stepping stones.” Matt Hayes

This would include some scrub clearance to ensure that foodplants aren’t completely overshadowed but sufficient shelter would have to be retained - a delicate balancing act.

Both Bladon and Hayes excitedly cite the resurgence of Britain’s Large Blue butterfly as an example of what can be achieved when research like theirs shapes nature reserve management. The Large Blue was declared extinct in the UK in the late 1970s but was successfully reintroduced in Somerset. In 2018, the Large Blue enjoyed its best UK summer on record, being identified at 40 sites, including 5,700 individuals on a single hill.

Bladon explains what caused the extinction: “The Large Blue tricks foraging red ants into caring for its larvae and these ants require very short grass. And what happened was that because myxomatosis had killed off so many rabbits, the grass grew a couple of centimetres longer than normal. That led to this ant species being out-competed by another that preferred longer grass, so the Large Blue’s life-cycle broke down. Now the reserves have established a grazing system, the ants are back and the Large Blue is doing really well again.”

Large Blue butterfly. Photo: Paul Ritchie under a CC license.

Large Blue butterfly. Photo: Paul Ritchie under a CC license.

Bladon and Hayes are well aware that nature reserves only offer part of the solution. Private gardens represent a larger total area than all of the UK’s reserves combined so gardening for wildlife is crucial, as is the need to make the agricultural landscape more permeable.

Kathy Darragh is interested in how biodiversity comes about, and her research is helping to unlock astonishing secrets about butterfly behaviour and evolution.

Kathy Darragh in Cambridge, June 2019

Kathy Darragh in Cambridge, June 2019

In the mid-nineteenth century, Alfred Russel Wallace realised that Heliconius butterflies, the focus of Darragh’s current work, provided evidence for natural selection and wrote to inform Charles Darwin. “Now we know which genes underlie those wing colour patterns,” Darragh says.

“It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come. Some wing patterns come from species hybridizing and swapping genes. I think Wallace and Darwin would be proud of what we’ve discovered.” Kathy Darragh

Kathy Darragh with a Postman butterfly, a member of the Heliconius genus.

Kathy Darragh with a Postman butterfly, a member of the Heliconius genus.

“We usually think of butterflies as being these very visual organisms and most work on mate choice has focused on their amazing wing colour patterns. But over the last twenty years, we’ve discovered these cryptic species of Heliconius, individual species that are very closely related and have identical wing colour patterns. So if wing colour pattern isn’t the cue that's keeping these species reproductively isolated, something else must be.

“So I started to consider the role that pheromones play and during my fieldwork in Panama, we carried out behavioural trials and found that these butterflies do use chemical cues in mate choice. And we found that they actually biosynthesize a lot of these compounds themselves as opposed to just taking them from a plant. I then looked at the genetic basis for these pheromones, how they vary geographically across South America and what all of this means for speciation.”

This field work was a long way from home. Darragh grew up in Northern Ireland where she recalls spending lots of time in rock pools searching for crabs. “I became interested in butterflies through science,” she says, “because they're an amazing system and we can learn a lot about evolutionary principles from that and apply those to other organisms and systems that are less well understood.”

When asked to choose a favourite butterfly, Darragh stands by Heliconius: “Because they’re toxic and rely on their wing patterns to keep them safe, they’re quite happy to be seen. They fly really slowly and tend to visit the same plants every day.

“One of the most common is called the Postman because it has a route through the forest that it follows every day. They have quite an impressive capacity for learning. My fieldwork isn’t quite as idyllic as you might think. The butterflies that we study, including the Postman, really like the roadside and semi-destroyed habitat because they like the light.”

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A Postman butterfly

A Postman butterfly

Andrew Bladon started out studying the effects of temperature change on birds but realised that butterflies were a more tractable group for understanding how species are going to respond to climate change. “So I came to butterflies because they were a good study group but now I've become very fond of them,” he insists. “You need to be when you’re lying on a muddy patch of grass in the woods trying to identify one.”

“My favourite has to be the Brown Argus. They’re challenging to identify, which is fun, but I also love their behaviour. They sit on grass stems and move all four wings independently to settle themselves down and it’s just super cute. They’re from the Lycaenidae family, which boasts many of my other favourites. Holly Blues are also really sweet. Lots of Lycaenidae have stripy antennae, which you only notice if you get really close, for example Green Hairstreak.”

A Brown Argus butterfly moving its wings. Photo: Andrew Bladon

A Brown Argus butterfly moving its wings. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Matt Hayes recalls being the kid who was always interested in creepy crawlies and “then at the end of my undergraduate degree, I studied the life cycle of butterflies and that was it”.

“My favourite,” he says, “has to be the Large Blue mostly because its life-cycle is so crazy. Its young feed on the grubs of an ant which they trick into taking care of them by mimicking the chemical signature of their nest. Then they turn into butterflies, crawl above ground and fly off. When people think about butterflies, they don’t normally imagine a social parasite. They also represent a great conservation success story.”

Female Large Blue butterfly. Photo: Paul Ritchie under a CC license

Female Large Blue butterfly. Photo: Paul Ritchie under a CC license

All three researchers are anxious about what the future holds for butterflies globally, but remain confident that their research can make a difference. “We know what needs doing,” says Bladon, “it’s just whether there’s the political will to roll out research-based strategies widely enough and support them long-term.”

From L to R: Matt Hayes, Andrew Bladon and Kathy Darragh in Cambridge, June 2019

Small tortoiseshell. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Brimstone butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Small Blue butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Red Admiral butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, England. Photo: Andrew Bladon

From L to R: Matt Hayes, Andrew Bladon and Kathy Darragh in Cambridge, June 2019

Small tortoiseshell. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Brimstone butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Small Blue butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Red Admiral butterfly. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, England. Photo: Andrew Bladon

Top Summary: 

Climate change poses a major threat to butterflies but a new generation of Cambridge scientists is working to unlock their secrets and help them thrive.

Image: Affiliation (schools and institutions): Department of ZoologyButterfly Genetics GroupExternal Affiliations: The Wildlife TrustsPeople (our academics and staff): Andrew BladonKathy DarraghMatt HayesSubject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): butterflyClimate changeSustainable EarthgeneticsBiodiversity conservationSection: ResearchNews type: Features