Modern Caterpillars Feed at Higher Temperatures in Response to Climate Change

A Colias (sulphur) butterfly.

The work, led by Joel Kingsolver at UNC-Chapel Hill, represents a rare instance of how recent climate change affects physiological traits, such as how the body regulates feeding behavior.

“To our knowledge, this is the first instance where we show changes in physiological traits in response to recent climate change,” says Kingsolver, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Biology in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, whose work appears today in the journal Functional Ecology.

Caterpillars can eat and grow only when it’s not too cold and not too hot, explains Kingsolver. But when temperatures are ideal, caterpillars eat with reckless abandon and can gain up to 20 percent of their body weight in an hour. That growth determines their ability to survive, how quickly they become adult butterflies and their ultimate reproductive success.

Jessica Higgins, a graduate student in Kingsolver’s lab who spearheaded the study, worked with fellow graduate student Heidi MacLean, Lauren Buckley, currently at the University of Washington, and Kingsolver to compare modern caterpillars to their ancestors from 40 years ago.

Their results show that the two related species of Colias (sulphur) butterflies have adapted in two ways: they not only broadened the range of their ideal feeding temperatures but also shifted their optimal feeding temperature to a higher one.

In their work, the researchers measured changes in climate at the two study sites and then examined changes in how fast caterpillar ate using current and historical data from the 1970s, collected by Kingsolver’s graduate adviser Ward Watt.

Read the full story here.

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About jensera

Jennifer Harrington is a Toronto-based illustrator, writer and graphic designer. She illustrated the best-selling children’s book series 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' which includes the titles 'A Moose in a Maple Tree,' 'The Night Before a Canadian Christmas' and 'Canadian Jingle Bells.' She is also the owner of JSH Graphics, a boutique graphic design agency that specializes in print and web advertising. With her latest project, Eco Books 4 Kids, Jennifer has partnered with illustrator Michael Arnott to create a series of ecologically-themed ebooks for children. Her next book, 'Spirit Bear,' is due for release in the Summer of 2013. Jennifer offers two different school presentations for her 'Moose in a Maple Tree' collection, an illustration demonstration and a Christmas concert series, which can be booked at www.amooseinamapletree.com. She will be taking bookings for school readings of 'Spirit Bear' beginning in October 2013.

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