Croatia is home to Krka National Park, which boasts 109 km2 of beautiful mediterranean landscape that supports thousands of flora and fauna, including the second highest density of lavender in Europe. This contributes to the large number of pollinators in the area, including over 60 species of diurnal butterfly, from seven different families within the order lepidoptera.
The collective noun for a group of butterflies is a kaleidoscope. The name originates from the amalgamation of iridescent colours multiple fluttering wings create. So called as it is reminiscent of the optical instrument that creates similar displays using mirrors.
Why study butterflies?
These winged beauties are excellent indicator species due to their sensitivity and rapid response to subtle habitat or climatic changes, aided by their relatively short multi-stage lifecycle. They are frequently referred to as a flagship species, and indicate a wide range of other invertebrates, which comprise over 90% of all animals. Collectively, these provide a range of ecosystem services, including pollination and natural biocontrol.
Photos of Southern White Admiral (Limentis reducta) and Cardinal (Argynnis pandora) by Bitsy Pout
The rationale for studying butterflies in Krka National Park relates to the rapid increase in tourism in recent years, causing detrimental impacts on wildlife in certain areas. Consequently, there is a need to invest in and alter conservation plans to protect biodiversity. Monitoring biodiversity is essential for effective conservation strategies to be put into place, and sampling butterflies can be used as an index for other species’ abundance, such as birds.
Throughout the 2023 field season, over 60 species of butterfly were recorded in Krka National Park. The two swallowtail species were determined by Operation Wallacea’s in-country biodiversity partner BIOTA. These were selected as the target species to identify as they have a distinctive flight pattern, are larger than most butterfly species in the area, and their adult life stage occurs directly over the field survey time, all of which contribute to a good species to survey in a citizen science project, where the expertise of individuals may differ.
Photos of Scare Swallowtail (Iphiclides podalirius) and Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) by Bisty Pout
I was lucky enough to be a research assistant at OpWall’s Mexico terrestrial site last year, following my dissertation project on frugivorous butterflies. Returning as a staff member to the Croatian site, I knew I would learn just as much; when it comes to ecology and conservation, there is nothing as effective as practical field experience.
Shortly after arriving, it transpired that Ellie (my fellow lepidopterist) and I would be leading cricket surveys twice a week. Although neither of us were trained orthopterists, we were both willing to learn as much as we can about the 3 target species before leading evening cricket surveys.
We decided to run scientific drawing workshops once a week, as accurate scientific drawing is such a valuable field skill. In a scenario where all digital devices have died, or the area is significantly understudied, with no accurate field guides, learning how to create a specific ID guide is invaluable. The results of the workshops were incredible, with students claiming they had never drawn before turning out to be excellent artists.
Creating and delivering lectures is a great way to develop science communication skills, with the students’ questions developing my own understanding of the topic I specialise in. Leading surveys, running workshops, and delivering lectures are all great transferrable skills that I as a staff member have developed over the past two months.
I was rather apprehensive when I found out I got this job as I am still in the early stages of my ecological career. I was surprised when I first arrived at the research centre to find that the age range of the science team was within ten years of my own. Experience comes with age, but expertise comes through passion. I have had the absolute pleasure of working with some incredible scientists, who are unarguably experts in their respective fields, regardless of age.
Some of the most experienced staff members shared with me their encounters with imposter syndrome, saying that no matter how much experience and knowledge they gain, they still feel that internal psychological experience of doubting their own skills or knowledge, despite having multiple publications and very successful career paths.
To ensure biological recordings are accurate, it is important when recording species to only specify to the level of which you are certain. This means it is okay to only note down the genus or even the family of a species, particularly if the species is mobile and difficult to catch and accurately record, as is often the case with butterflies. There are simply too many of them to catch and identify every single individual to the species level! It is also unnecessary to do this as all species surveys are fundamentally a method to estimate the overall population size. Not knowing every single species and subspecies does not make you a bad scientist, it makes you a human. On the contrary, admitting when you do not know something makes you a better scientist, as this is an opportunity to learn and grow.
Sometimes it can feel disheartening when you have trekked for an hour and a half in blistering heat searching for a specific species, and you do not find it. One of the most important things I have learned whilst being here is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because no species were sampled on a transect does not mean that there were no species there, just that they weren’t sampled.
Operation Wallacea are lucky to have a research centre in Krka National Park, within which a myriad of projects are carried out. These projects range from butterfly, herpetofauna and mammal transects, to bird and bat mist netting, to cave and habitat surveys. The ecology of this wide range of species is being studied as the National Park Authority has requested baseline surveys are performed to increase the known inventory for the Park, along with long-term monitoring data to answer management questions.
Due to the biodiverse nature of Krka National Park, and the range of endemic species found there, more research needs to be conducted. Insects are famously understudied; more so moths and beetles than butterflies, but nevertheless, 4 weeks into the field season this year, we caught an argus species exhibiting markings that do not match any argus species found, potentially indicating a new species is here. There are so many niches within the rich mosaic of habitats in Krka National Park that species are constantly evolving. Furthermore, the cricket surveys Biota requested are specifically targeting the Saga pedo (pictured below); one of the world’s largest and least studied Orthoptera species!
If the research potential of this gorgeous National Park has given you butterflies, and you want to witness the kaleidoscopes in Krka, then check out the Operation Wallacea website under the In Field Experiences section. Schools, university students and research assistants are all very welcome – we would love you to join us on site soon! I would urge any potential staff member to apply – passion and enthusiasm are invaluable skills to be a member of the science team.
Photos by Bitsy Pout
Title photo by Ethelbert Duca