Italy: Museum recreates Tanzanian butterfly forest

Trento: In a lush greenhouse high in the Alps, butterflies of various species and colors flutter freely while butterfly pupae are suspended in a structure as they grow into adult insects.

This is the Butterfly Forest in the tropical mountain greenhouse in Trento, Italy, a project by the Museo delle Scienze (MUSE), an Italian science museum. It’s modeled on Udzungwa Mountains, a mountain range and rainforest area in south-central Tanzania that’s one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The Butterfly Forest features plant species endemic to the region, as well as birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates from different parts of the world, all inside 600 square meters of forest with cliffs, inclinations and a waterfall.

The Butterfly Forest was created this spring to create public awareness on some of the research that MUSE is doing in Udzungwa Mountains to study and protect the world’s biodiversity against threats such as deforestation and climate change.

Deforestation leads to habitat loss, which causes declines in nectar sources for butterflies, changing the functioning of the ecosystem. It can also limit the movements of the insects causing a decline in biodiversity and potential extinction of vulnerable butterfly species. Changes to soil and air temperatures are altering the life cycles of the insects, impacting their development rates, mating behaviors, and migration patterns. Butterfly populations are declining in many areas, especially in places under intensive land use.

“Our aim is that of being able to study better, to understand better what is happening,” said Lisa Angelini, a botanist and director of the MUSE greenhouse. “Our work consists of monitoring and trying to develop projects in order to bring attention to biodiversity-related issues.”

Butterflies are pollinators that enable plants to reproduce and therefore facilitate food production and supply. They are also food for birds and other animals.

Because of the multiple roles of butterflies in the ecosystem and their high sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists use them as indicators of biodiversity and a way to study the impact of habitat loss and other threats. “Insects in general play a fundamental role in the proper functioning of ecosystems,” said Mauro Gobbi, an entomologist and researcher at MUSE.

Through a partnership with the Tanzania National Parks Authority, MUSE established the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center in 2006 to support research as well as in development of environmental education programs for schools.

“Research on butterflies is essential for informing conservation efforts and ensuring the long-term survival of the insects,” said Arafat Mtui, research coordinator at Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Centre. Conservation efforts such as habitat restoration and good land management practices, which address climate change impacts, are essential for protecting butterfly populations, he added.

With at least 2,500 plant species, more than 120 mammals, and thousands of invertebrate species, Udzungwa Mountains is rich in biological diversity. It’s part of the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania that are a proposed UNESCO Heritage site. It has more than 40 endemic species of butterflies.

MUSE’s work here is vital because of this variety, said Sevgan Subramanian, principal scientist and head of environmental health at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

“If you want to have a monitoring of the health of the ecosystem, monitoring such indigenous or endemic insect population diversity is very critical, so that we have an idea whether the ecosystem is still healthy or not,” he said.

Gobbi, the entomologist, said high-altitude environments like Udzungwa Mountains National Park are suitable for studying the effects of climate change because they usually have no direct human impact.

He and other scientists have warned that failure to protect insects from climate change effects will drastically reduce the planet’s ability to build a sustainable future.

Scientists at MUSE said the main challenge in butterfly conservation is changing the current farming policies to increase the amount of low-intensity farmland, and promote diverse landscapes preserving the remaining patches of natural habitats.

“Often our grandparents used to say ‘there are no longer as many butterflies as there used to be,’” he said. This is “absolutely supported by scientific research, which confirms that butterflies, like other insects, are in crisis. We are losing species, we’re losing them forever, and this is going to break the balance of ecosystems.”