How is a butterfly like a polar bear?

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly (Agraulis vanillae)I awoke on Saturday morning to a sign that the deep freeze that had locked me into seasonal emotional torpor might be lifting: I saw a butterfly. She was a Gulf Fritillary, sunning her wings on the passion vine outside my window. The warmth had brought out my pollinating friend, as well as my hope for a morning cup of coffee in the sunshine. Joy had returned to Oakland!

As I sipped coffee on the back porch, she sipped nectar from a flower. Where had she been while it was so cold? Would that cold bring about fewer nectar flowers and host plants? Did her carefully laid eggs freeze? Then I pondered, is it the cold, or the rising heat, that she and I should really be concerned with?

Butterflies, the posterbug for pollination, are in trouble. Due to issues such as habitat loss, pesticide use and invasive species, butterflies struggle to find nectar for eating and host plants for their caterpillar babies, who happen to be particular. Now, it seems, a new problem for butterflies has strolled into town, global warming!

Passion FlowerAccording to Laurie Davies Adams of the Coevolution Institute, studies on various butterflies, including the Bay Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha bayensis), suggest that climate change will push the insect to extinction. The plants it depends on for food will shift their growing season, so when eggs hatch, the caterpillars will be left with no plant food on their plates. Scientists are worried. If we can't stop global warming today or tomorrow, then what can we do for the endangered Bay checkerspot?

Some have suggested the semi-radical concept of assisted migration. For butterflies, this would mean picking some up and moving them somewhere cooler. While I also feel compelled to move animals out of harms way, I wonder about the long term outcome of such a move. Sure, it worked for the grey wolf, but look what happened when we moved the cane toad. Other questions arise, such as, which butterfly species shall we move? Where? Should we really play this role?


Of course, there is something that we can all do to help, plant for butterflies. Find a sunny, wind protected patch in your yard. Observe which butterflies flit about and research their favorite flowers and plants. Then, plant a few of them. Give them some rocks for sunning and some muddy water for drinking, lay off the pesticides and presto, you have helped the butterflies. Now, what do we plant for polar bears?

For information about butterfly gardening, go to:

To learn more about the plight of all insects, join the Oakland Zoo on February 22nd for a lecture with Leslie Saul-Gershenz and live insects from The Center for Ecosystem Survival.

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Cooordinator at The Oakland Zoo.