While we may not have a clear picture of what’s going on at this stage, it seems the iconic Ulysses butterfly has suddenly been pushed towards extinction.
The plight of other butterfly species, such as the monarch butterfly in the Americas, have in recent times highlighted concerns about the sustainability of these lepidopteran pollinators. And while some species appeared in plague proportions in Queensland this season, it appears the state has at least one species going the way of the monarch.
The Ulysses butterfly (Papilio ulysses) is an example of a swallowtail butterfly which, in combination with its iridescent blue colour, has led the species to become something of an unofficial mascot for Far North Queensland, where it is found.
Yet butterfly breeders and keen-eyed members of the public have both noted a distinct lack of wild Ulysses individuals since the beginning of this year.
The Kuranda-based Australian Butterfly Sanctuary has even experienced a complete loss of their Ulysses butterflies, with breeding success rates plummeting from 90 percent to zero in recent times.
General Manager for the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary, Mel Nikolich expressed her concern regarding the sudden loss of the Ulysses in recent communications with Wild.
“Butterflies are like ambassadors of the insect world, with the Ulysses being one of the most well known and loved on the planet,” she said. “Its decline could be an indication of other things not being right in the ecosystem.
“We’ve not had a decent wet season in the past three to four years and without heavy cloud cover, temperatures have been on the rise. Our records show that during these times, of the butterflies that do lay eggs, the majority have been infertile.”
Temperature as a stressor is one theory that has been put forward for the Ulysses’ decline, however other factors may be at play.
Nikolich said that the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary “has contributed significantly through extra laboratory time and staff wages trying to counter and understand this substantial decrease in numbers”.
“We have been sharing our findings with other local breeders, but sadly we have yet to determine the cause of the decline,” she said.
Other known breeders of the Ulysses butterfly all report the same thing seems to be happening to their breeding stocks, indicating that – whatever the cause – it’s not restricted to a single collection.
Responding to the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary’s concerns, experts from James Cook University (JCU) have begun considering a course of action to determine the exact cause of the Ulysses’ decline, which may impact the viability of efforts to conserve the colourful insect.
In a recent media release, evolutionary ecologist for JCU, Dr Tobin Northfield stated the urgency of the situation.
“One of the keys to avoiding species extinctions is to heed the early warning signs identified by local groups working closely with the species,” he said.
“Therefore, it is imperative that we identify the drivers of the problems facing these butterflies now.”
It is understood that the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary’s parent company, The CaPTA Group, has approached the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries as well as Dr Steven Miles, who is the state minister for both Environment and Heritage Protection and for National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef, to request funding and support in the matter.