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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Is this butterfly a canary?

9 January 2019

Back in "the olden days", men working in coal mines, deep below the surface of the planet, would take canaries with them as they dug deep into the earth's crust.

Those canaries were a sacrificial kind of alarm which would alert the miners to the presence of odourless toxic gases (such as carbon monoxide and methane). How did they do that? Well they simply keeled over and died at even relatively low levels of toxicity.

Bad news for the canaries but a life-saver for those who had to work in such dangerous conditions.

It seems that in nature, we're a relatively hardy (and stupid) organism which is often far to slow to recognise the signs of danger and react in time to save ourselves -- hence the need for carrying these tiny birds with us when messing around with the planet.

Of course these days we have technology instead of feathered friends. The hi-tech gas sensors which are used instead of canaries have the benefits that they are smaller, far more sensitive and don't need to be fed.

However, it seems that nature is providing its own canary to alert us to big dangers, right here on the surface of Mother Earth.

Over the past decade or so, we've seen a number of animal species undergo significant changes in population levels, for no apparent reason.

First there was a massive decline in some species of frog, starting in the 1980s.

Although many theories were proposed to explain this decline, no conclusive single factor was isolated. The current theory is that it was a combination of a disease called chytridiomycosis and the effects of climate change.

More recently we've seen sudden declines in bee populations and, as with the frogs, the cause of this dramatic change in population levels has not been reliably isolated.

A wide range of possibilities have been presented, including the increased use of nicotine-based insecticides, the proliferation of mobile phone towers, the rise of pathogens such as the veroa mite and (once again) climate change.

The loss of bee population is extremely worrying because they are a key pollinator species. Without them we risk significantly reduced crop yields and that could, in worst case, result in widespread famine.

And now, another canary seems to be gasping its last breath...

The numbers of Monarch butterflies which normally overwinter in parts of the USA have dropped dramatically (media report).

This isn't the first report I've read indicating the decline of this species in recent years and I have to say that I don't recall seeing a Monarch in the wild for a couple of years now. This is in contrast to a decade or so ago when they were not uncommon at all -- at least around these parts.

Again, the drop in numbers is at least partly attributed to climate change and its effects on the weather.

Should we be worried?

If you don't believe the numbers being rolled out by scientists, should you believe your own eyes when it comes to the effects of climate change on key indicator species?

Are we not paying enough attention to the mine-canaries that nature has so thoughtfully provided for us?

I'd love some feedback from readers on this one. Unlike Stuff.co.nz, Aardvark is definitely open to *all* opinions, whether you're a believer or a denier. Get to the forums and talk turkey (or canary).

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