Butterflies teach researcher about climate change

May 17, 2012 7:51:27 PM PDT
It's been a strange year, weather-wise. We had spring in winter and then winter in spring. And if it was difficult for you to adapt, it was tougher, elsewhere. However, it's making some very interesting science.

The solitary figure making his way up this road and into the Sacramento wetlands is part interloper and all observer.

"The male red winged blackbirds are ticked off for our being in the slew," Arthur Shapiro, Ph.D., said.

But Shapiro's real expertise has to do with smaller flying creatures. Shapiro has studied butterflies most of his life.

Maybe you've passed him along Northern California trails. He's spent 40 years making the same walks every two weeks, counting butterflies. It's the method to see how changes in climate affect their life histories.

Don't even ask him to estimate how many miles he has covered.

"I don't know," Shapiro said. "If I were a Toyota I would be ready for a trade-in and Toyotas are tough."

Shapiro has taught biology at UC Davis so long that he's part of the department's framework -- a beloved faculty member with an office as funky as his beard and records as meticulous as those of Charles Darwin, if not better.

He's authored a bible of butterfly spotting.

ABC7 News last walked with Shapiro two years ago. Then, he acknowledged the effects from our changing climate, but held back from commenting on mankind's role in it.

Now, with more data, he goes little further.

"My opinion is that probably, there is a significant human component to this," Shapiro said.

And in this strange, wet spring following a drought-like winter, it's been all the more interesting.

"I'm one of the folks, and there are a lot of us, who think that the predictability of the weather is going down, and in tandem with so-called global warming, and the frequency of extreme events is going up," Shapiro said.

And that's a problem because nature is all about timing. Some species take cues from the weather. Others, from the length of a day. But, they're all inter-related. They rely on each other. If they get out of synch it can lead to larger problems like reproductive failure and even extinction.

Hence this keen interest in the hearty, but delicate, 60-million-year old creatures. And the drive that keeps a 68-year-old professor on the trails.


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