Photo © Lloyd Russell / Univ Plymouth
The Butterfly Effect
UT biologist Camille Parmesan connects climate to wildlife.
By Sarah Bloodworth
She hopped in her pickup truck, loaded with camping supplies, lab equipment and a net, and drove into the mountains alone, where people were scarce but butterflies weren’t. Biologist Camille Parmesan’s mission was to document populations of a butterfly that she believes works better than a thermometer to predict climate patterns.
Photo © Cosmin Manci | Dreamstime.com
Parmesan had no idea back then that camping and capturing butterflies would be the foundation of a new field, climate change biology. Publishing dozens of scientific papers, she paved the way for tracking the effects of climate on various species.
Affiliated with both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Plymouth in England, Parmesan is a leading expert on the Edith’s checkerspot, a butterfly sporting UT colors, wings flecked with symmetrical orange-and-white markings. The species is an exceptional test subject because the butterfly spends its entire life in a small habitat, and its habitat sensitivity makes it susceptible to environmental changes. Found primarily in the western United States, the butterflies live in a variety of remote mountain habitats including meadows, ridgetops and open woodlands in the Sierra Nevadas and other ranges. Every place Parmesan found these butterflies during her research, she recalls, was beautiful.
“I wasn’t just alone but alone in the middle of nowhere, camping out in a little tent,” Parmesan says. “It was wonderful in the sense of being very centering. It’s a very simple life — all the problems of the city go away. I could wake up leisurely and sit around the fire, then go out for an intense period of research.”
Parmesan dedicated the majority of her career to studying populations of two subspecies of the Edith’s checkerspot — the Bay checkerspot and the Quino checkerspot. Both are listed as endangered, and both are notably sensitive to climate variability.
“I really fell in love with them,” she says.
Parmesan says she didn’t expect to find any substantial connection between the populations and climate change at first because of other plausible factors, like land-use changes. Plus, she didn’t have a lot of data on climate change to reference.
“This was the early 1990s, when people weren’t even sure they were seeing a significant warming trend, but they expected it — they just didn’t have evidence,” Parmesan says. “Here I was working with an extremely climate-sensitive butterfly that might be a better measure of temperature change than a thermometer, since the butterflies are responding to a much more complex set of climate variation.”
Parmesan’s career gained momentum, and she spent three to six months each year traveling around Mexico and the United States. She found that the Edith’s checkerspot shifted its range 100 kilometers northward and 100 meters upward, which is exactly what she expected from the 0.7 degrees (Centigrade) of warming over that time period. The butterflies were moving to adapt to a warming climate.
According to Parmesan, the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly is more vulnerable to climate change because it typically lives in small habitats and relies on one specific plant — the dwarf plantain — for early developmental support. Parmesan said the butterfly’s migration patterns are shifting as their nectar sources become less available due to disruptive warming.
“The butterflies are using a host plant that doesn’t last long because as it heats up, it dries faster,” she says. “They can’t keep up.”
In 1996, she published her findings in the scientific journal Nature, one of the first pieces of evidence that the warming climate affects living things.
“I think my paper in Nature was so highly cited because it was a result that anyone could understand,” Parmesan says. “The butterflies were going extinct at low elevation and not at high. It superseded all the complexity that could have occurred, and that gave me confidence. It also made me appreciate the species even more.”
Within a few months of publication, Parmesan was invited to speak at a White House seminar series on environmental issues, and shortly after, to be a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report.
Parmesan says it was a lot of responsibility and risk to take on these challenges so early in her career, but it was worth it to reap the benefits.
“I was one of the very first people in the new field,” Parmesan says, “and I was lucky that I did this big, risky project … and it worked.”
Over the years, Parmesan has been honored for her work in climate change and conservation, including the 2007 National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Award in Science and the Outstanding Woman Working on Climate Change award by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She served as a lead author on a United Nations climate panel that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
Parmesan always had a connection with nature, even growing up in the metropolis of Houston. She attributes her passion to her mother, who (with a master’s in geology and a minor in botany) helped Parmesan embrace the natural world. Big Thicket National Preserve in southeast Texas was a favorite place for them to visit.
Photo © Michael Singer
Camille Parmesan produced her groundbreaking research after capturing and studying butterflies — most notably the Edith’s checkerspot, above — and monitoring how they adapted to changes in climate.
Photo © Camille Parmesan
University of Texas researcher Camille Parmesan studied the Edith’s checkerspot butterfly across its entire geographical range, from Mexico to Canada.
“I was in nature from my very first memories,” Parmesan says. “I learned how to camp, how to hike and how to deal with bears. It just never occurred to me not to have nature as part of my life.”
Yet Parmesan didn’t enter her college career swinging a butterfly net in the wilderness. She always had a fascination for human physiology and strived to become a medical researcher. Some cute white rats changed her mind.
During her time in the vertebrate physiology lab at UT, she was tasked to observe the heartbeat of those rats, which required a surgical procedure. Parmesan says she was on board with the work until she received the next set of instructions: Puncture the rat’s lungs with a knife and time its death.
“You can’t expect me to spend a semester killing animals,” Parmesan says. “I was horrified, and you couldn’t really go to medical school if you couldn’t do that.”
She decided to utilize her empathy and interest to conduct animal behavior research. She studied chimpanzee social behavior, bee foraging and bird behavior.
“I loved birding, so I started doing fieldwork with birds, but you have to wake up at 4 in the morning and then spend hours and hours in the field to get one data point,” she says. “I was getting very frustrated. I needed [more] data for my honors thesis.”
Her desperation after abandoning bird research led to participation in a summer program with her professor (and future husband) Michael Singer in the Sierra Nevadas. There, she first encountered the Edith’s checkerspot. She studied the diet of the butterfly, and within two weeks had enough data for her thesis.
Then, opportunity knocked once again. In 1991, while she was finishing up her graduate studies, colleague Monica Swartz notified Parmesan about a NASA research opportunity to study climate change in what was then called the Mission to Planet Earth program. Citing her climate-sensitive butterfly study, she applied and was accepted.
“The idea was to find a pattern of population extinctions that explains climate change,” she tells me. “I spent the first year going around the country, collecting data and looking at butterfly specimens.”
Parmesan could finally tap into her passion for the natural world.
“There are tedious parts, like weighing butterfly eggs,” she says, “but I still prefer working a 12-hour day in the mountains over an office job.”
Parmesan and Singer spent two decades studying the effects of climate change on the Edith’s checkerspot. They currently live in England, where she says she will shift her research away from meta-analyses (such as broad population movements) to her original passion, medical research. She recently worked on a project linking a parasitic disease spread by sandflies, leishmaniasis, to climate change.
French President Emmanuel Macron awarded Parmesan the Make Our Planet Great Again grant in 2017, providing three to five years of funding to conduct climate research abroad. Singer says they plan on moving to France, where he’s excited for Parmesan to continue not only conducting groundbreaking research, but also communicating the solutions.
“Camille was able, even in the early days of climate change, to assimilate everything — all the different research that was going in climate science in technology and economics even,” Singer says. “She helps foster communication between the different fields.”
Parmesan still is affiliated with UT as an adjunct professor, but she plans on staying in Europe for now, where she can study the marsh fritillary, a species related to the Edith’s checkerspot. She’s interested in doing a comparative research project between the two species.
“I’m ready to get back in the field,” Parmesan says. “My work isn’t just watching species die off, but to give conservation biologists some ideas about what adaptations exist to help species cope. Let’s understand how wildlife is reacting to us, so we can help them better.”
Sarah Bloodworth is a former intern at Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine and a 2019 UT graduate.
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