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Discover the Butterfly Forest at MUSE: A Sanctuary for Biodiversity and Conservation Awareness in Trento, Italy

Trento, Italy — In a lush greenhouse nestled in the Alps, butterflies of various species and vibrant colors freely flutter about, while pupae dangle from structures as they mature into adult insects. This serene setting is the Butterfly Forest, a feature of the tropical mountain greenhouse at the Museo delle Scienze (MUSE) in Trento, Italy. Modeled after the

Udzungwa Mountains in south-central Tanzania, a global biodiversity hotspot, the Butterfly Forest showcases not only butterflies but also plant species endemic to the region, along with birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates from around the world, all within 600 square meters of forest complete with cliffs, inclinations, and a waterfall.

The Butterfly Forest, inaugurated this spring, aims to raise public awareness about the critical research MUSE conducts in the Udzungwa Mountains to study and protect global biodiversity from threats like deforestation and climate change.

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Deforestation leads to habitat loss, reducing nectar sources for butterflies and disrupting ecosystem functions. It can also restrict insect movement, diminishing biodiversity and risking the extinction of vulnerable butterfly species. Additionally, changes in soil and air temperatures alter insect life cycles, affecting their development, mating behaviors, and migration patterns. Butterfly populations are declining, particularly in intensively used lands.

"Our goal is to enhance our understanding of these issues," said Lisa Angelini, a botanist and director of the MUSE greenhouse. "We monitor and develop projects to spotlight biodiversity-related challenges."

Butterflies play crucial roles as pollinators, enabling plant reproduction and facilitating food production. They also serve as food for birds and other animals. Due to their sensitivity to environmental changes, scientists use butterflies as indicators of biodiversity and to study the impact of habitat loss and other threats. "Insects are fundamental to ecosystem functioning," emphasized Mauro Gobbi, an entomologist and MUSE researcher.

In collaboration with the Tanzania National Parks Authority, MUSE established the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center in 2006 to support research and develop environmental education programs for schools.

"Research on butterflies is vital for informing conservation efforts and ensuring their survival," stated Arafat Mtui, research coordinator at the Udzungwa Ecological Monitoring Center. Conservation efforts, such as habitat restoration and sustainable land management practices addressing climate change impacts, are crucial for protecting butterfly populations.

With over 2,500 plant species, more than 120 mammals, and thousands of invertebrate species, the Udzungwa Mountains are rich in biodiversity. Part of the Eastern Arc Mountains in Kenya and Tanzania, a proposed UNESCO Heritage site, the region hosts over 40 endemic butterfly species.

MUSE's work is vital due to this biological variety, noted Sevgan Subramanian, principal scientist and head of environmental health at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. "Monitoring indigenous or endemic insect population diversity is critical for assessing ecosystem health," he explained.

High-altitude environments like Udzungwa Mountains National Park are ideal for studying climate change effects due to minimal direct human impact, added Gobbi. He and other scientists warn that failing to protect insects from climate change will severely undermine efforts to achieve a sustainable future.

MUSE scientists identified a major challenge in butterfly conservation: changing current farming policies to increase low-intensity farmland and promote diverse landscapes that preserve natural habitats. "Our grandparents often said, 'There are not as many butterflies as there used to be,'" Gobbi remarked. "This observation is backed by scientific research confirming that butterflies, like other insects, are in crisis. We are losing species forever, which will disrupt ecosystem balance."

The Butterfly Forest at MUSE serves as both a sanctuary for diverse butterfly species and a powerful educational tool highlighting the urgent need for biodiversity conservation. By drawing attention to the vital research conducted in the Udzungwa Mountains and the pressing threats of deforestation and climate change,

MUSE aims to foster greater public understanding and action. Protecting butterfly populations is not only crucial for maintaining ecological balance but also for securing a sustainable future for all species, including humans. The collaborative efforts between MUSE and conservation organizations underscore the importance of preserving our natural world, ensuring that the beauty and functionality of ecosystems continue to thrive for generations to come.

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