Climate Change butterfly research

Published on August 17th, 2012 | by csaylor


10-year project in Osa hopes to document climate change

When forced to define his occupation on an international customs form, Philip Davison usually takes the easy way out and reports “biologist”. The limited space forces Davison to omit his hard-earned titles of geologist, zoologist, naturalist guide in the Osa Peninsula, and scientific researcher investigating how weather patterns and climate change affect butterfly and amphibian populations.

If he included all his hats, his bags might be given a second search. A self-proclaimed biologist “since the age of three,” Davison grew up in the United Kingdom and earned a degree in Biology and Zoology in 1979. After years of studying volcanoes, rainforests, and animal and weather patterns, Davison first visited the Osa Peninsula in 1993.

“My interests have always been butterflies, reptiles and amphibians,” Davison said. “In the UK, we have 58 resident species of butterflies. Here in the tropics and Costa Rica there are 7,784 species. The Osa Peninsula was a pretty ideal opportunity for me not only to pursue my passion, but to conduct a scientific study as well.”

Davison relocated to Cabo Matapalo on the southern tip of the Osa Peninsula in 2000, where he began working as a guide at the Bosque del Cabo lodge, which sits on more than 750 acres of land traversed by jungle trails and wildlife that rivals the nearby Corcovado National Park. Upon arrival to Cabo Matapalo, Davison meticulously plotted his research project.

“I was trying design my research to look at two items of climate, namely precipitation and temperature, and find two groups of animals I could use to measure any rate of change that could be observed using those two variables,” Davison said. “The most accessible and logical, given my background, were butterflies and amphibians.”

Over the last 10 years, Davison has systematically charted his findings. Every night at 7:15 p.m. he walks at a set pace to two ponds on the grounds of the lodge where he monitors 13 zones of identical size. As he walks, he dictates to a recorder the quantity, species, location and behavior of the amphibians he spots, current weather conditions, and any other observation of significance, such as the presence of frog eggs or predators.

To chart the effects of climate patterns on butterflies, Davison practices a similar discipline, walking a 5-kilometer path at the same time each week, recording his observations and taking photos. Davison has documented about 360 species of butterflies on the grounds of Bosque del Cabo, including several never before recorded in Osa.
“Something new is always turning up,” he explains. “Some of these species of butterflies that I see, I see them once, and then they never appear again,” he says. “I know immediately when I am seeing something I’ve never seen before, and that for me is always a thrilling experience.”

As for conclusive evidence on the impact of climate change, Davison says results of his experimentation don’t cater to today’s instant information culture. Certifiable results may not be available for years – long after his passes the torch to the right candidate in the future.

“What I have now are simple conclusions that prove that with more rain, there are more amphibians. When it is hotter, there are more butterflies,” he says. “As for long-term results, another scientist or biologist will have to take over the research at some point to carry it on. But if you are looking for a definitive yes or no in regards to climate change affecting habitats, you’ll probably want to check back in with me in another 20 years or so.
For more on Davison’s work and biological studies visit his blog at:

Article by Adam Williams originally printed in the December | January 2012 edition of Landings magazine

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