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Radar tracking reveals that butterflies follow decisive flight paths

6 April 2005

The charming meanderings of butterflies are not as random as they appear, according to new research. Scientists at Rothamsted Research, a research institute sponsored by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in Hertfordshire, have found that their seemingly irresolute flutterings are in fact decisive flight paths. The harmonic radar has been used before to track the flights of bumblebees and honeybees. Now it has been shown to work for butterflies too, opening a new window on the flight behaviour of these important pollinating species.

BBSRC-funded researcher Lizzie Cant has attached tiny radar transponders, weighing only about 12mg (4-8% of body weight), to peacock or small tortoiseshell butterflies. This allows her to use harmonic radar to track the butterfly’s position accurately up to 1km away. Previous studies had to use visual observation (difficult over 50m) or indirect mark-recapture techniques.

Butterflies were tracked undertaking fast, directed flights to potential feeding sites or interspersing periods of foraging with looping “orientation” flights. Knowing how butterflies navigate can help us understand how capable they are of maintaining sustainable populations in our increasingly fragmented countryside.

Lizzie Cant said, “Butterflies are important pollinators, providing a crucial service to plants in many ecosystems. This research will help us to understand a little more about how they survive in a countryside that is becoming more and more fragmented."


Notes to editors

  1. Tracking butterfly flights across the landscape with harmonic radar by Cant, E.T. Smith, A. D Reynolds, D.R. Osborne, J. L. In: Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
  2. Rothamsted Research is one of the largest agricultural research institutes in the country and is sponsored by the BBSRC.
  3. This work was funded by a BBSRC studentship.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk


Click on the thumbnails to view and download full-size images.

Butterfly with antenna attached. (190 KB)

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Butterfly with antenna attached. (279 KB)

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Butterfly with antenna attached. (201 KB)

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Note that these images are protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement of BBSRC and Rothamsted Research.

External contact

Dr Elspeth Bartlet, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext. 2260 / 07870 161628

Lizzie Cant, Rothamsted Research

tel: 01582 763133 ext. 2668 / 07816 069388


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382