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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2005 Feb 28;360(1454):339-57.

Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups.

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NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Dorset Laboratory, Winfrith Technology Centre, Dorchester DT2 8ZD, UK.


Conservative estimates suggest that 50-90% of the existing insect species on Earth have still to be discovered, yet the named insects alone comprise more than half of all known species of organism. With such poor baseline knowledge, monitoring change in insect diversity poses a formidable challenge to scientists and most attempts to generalize involve large extrapolations from a few well-studied taxa. Butterflies are often the only group for which accurate measures of change can be obtained. Four schemes, used successfully to assess change in British butterflies, that are increasingly being applied across the world are described: Red Data Books (RDB) list the best judgements of experts of the conservation status of species in their field of expertise; mapping schemes plot the changing distributions of species at scales of 1-100 km2; transect monitoring schemes generate time series of changes in abundance in sample populations of species on fixed sites across the UK; and occasional surveys measure the number, boundaries and size of all populations of a (usually RDB) species at intervals of 10-30 years. All schemes describe consistent patterns of change, but if they are to be more generally useful, it is important to understand how well butterflies are representative of other taxa. Comparisons with similarly measured changes in native bird and plant species suggest that butterflies have declined more rapidly that these other groups in Britain; it should soon be possible to test whether this pattern exists elsewhere. It is also demonstrated that extinction rates in British butterflies are similar to those in a range of other insect groups over 100 years once recording bias is accounted for, although probably lower than in aquatic or parasitic taxa. It is concluded that butterflies represent adequate indicators of change for many terrestrial insect groups, but recommended that similar schemes be extended to other popular groups, especially dragonflies, bumblebees, hoverflies and ants. Given institutional backing, similar projects could be employed internationally and standardized. Finally, a range of schemes designed to monitor change in communities of aquatic macro-invertebrates is described. Although designed to use invertebrates as a bio-indicator of water quality for human use, these programmes could be extended to monitor the 2010 biodiversity targets of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

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