Butterfly in the oil sands
Provided by Federico Riva, attached to ACE Lab, UofA
Industry in Action

What can butterflies tell us about the oil sands?

Ecologist Federico Riva studies butterfly populations to help oil sand producers monitor and protect biodiversity in the boreal forest.

Ecologist Federico Riva wondered why no one had studied butterfly populations in the Canadian oil sands before. A scientist with a conservation biology background and a passion for working on important challenges, Riva knew understanding how different species respond to habitat changes, both human and natural, is key to managing and protecting biodiversity. The more we examine the different creatures in an ecosystem, the better equipped we are to preserve both them and their home, Riva explains.

“The best way to inform conservation practices is to gather data about what is actually happening,” he says. “Rigorous and effective land management must be informed by data, and data on as many groups as possible because natural systems are complex networks of interconnected species.”

The response of mammals such as caribou and wolves to disturbed areas in the oil sands region had been widely studied before, but butterflies and other insects were largely overlooked. Riva was interested in how butterflies responded to habitat change in forest intersected by seismic lines – the corridors cut through the trees to accommodate seismic surveys. How did narrow lines (on average eight metres wide) impact the number and makeup of butterfly communities, and why? Those questions led to the first butterfly study of its kind in the region and discoveries that turned conventional thinking on its head. 

The research came about through Riva’s PhD program at the University of Alberta. Armed with bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Turin, Italy, Riva arrived in Edmonton in 2015 to study under Scott Nielsen and John Acorn, professors and researchers in the Applied Conservation Ecology (ACE) Lab*.

Over the next four years, Riva studied the diversity and behavior of boreal butterflies in areas disturbed by both seismic lines and wildfire. During the summers, he hiked through the boreal forest with a butterfly net, catching, recording and releasing hundreds of butterflies. More than 3,000 kilometres and 4,000 butterflies later, he’d uncovered surprising insights.

Riva had expected to find perhaps 30 different butterfly species in the region, but recorded more than 50 – one quarter of all species found in Alberta – in an area of less than 40 square kilometres! 

He also found that in narrow seismic lines, butterfly populations were no different to those found in the surrounding forest. “If the management goal is to minimize forest changes, then these low-impact lines seem to be working for butterflies, and likely for other insects too,” Riva says.

Wide seismic lines (up to 10 metres wide) did impact butterfly abundance and diversity – in a positive way. Riva found populations increased in these treeless corridors because the variety of low-lying plants and vegetation here provide ideal butterfly habitat. “In these lines, the greater the variety of plants, the greater the number of butterfly species and the larger those communities were,” Riva says. “This suggests that wider seismic lines can still elicit a change in forest communities.”

In a follow-up project, Riva also found that wide seismic lines offered safe refuge from wildfire for butterflies and plants, something that could help these ecosystems recover faster. “It was really important to assess both butterflies and plants together to ‘connect the dots’,” he says, adding “every piece of information can help to optimize our actions when protecting something as important as Canada’s boreal forest.”

*COSIA has had long academic ties with both the ACE Lab and the University of Alberta and currently supports eight NSERC research chair programs at the university. This scientific work is helping COSIA members be world leaders in land management, restoring the land and preserving biodiversity of plants and animals.

This story was reprinted with permission from the Canada Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). For more stories on innovations and environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands, visit cosia.ca.