We use butterflies as a model to investigate how invertebrate herbivores move through the landscape in evolutionary time. This is particularly important in a time, when we try to understand how climate warming will influence species composition and behavior in the next decennia.
The species we study belong to the genus Erebia (ringlet butterflies), a group which is particularly species-rich in alpine ecosystems. They are relatively small butterflies with wingspans of about 3–5 cm. The larvae of this group all feed on grasses and sedges.
About 27 species of ringlet butterflies occur in Switzerland, which makes them the most diverse genus of butterflies in the country. In former work, we have shown that paved roads definitely hinder dispersal of Erebia butterflies.
Currently, we use this system to investigate in how far inherited food plant preferences at the larval stage would allow dispersal to higher altitudes as a response to climate warming. We focus particularly on Erebia nivalis, a that is restricted to the Austrian and Swiss alps species and has become extremely rare in the Swiss part of its range.
We also study in how far hybridization has contributed to speciation in this relatively recent radiation of butterflies. Erebia could be an example that shows how the continuous formation of hybrids creates particularly species-rich groups in temperate invertebrates.