25 January 2020
Dr. Timothy Bonebrake from the University of Hong Kong hunts butterflies with a large net. Photo: HKEJ
Dr. Timothy Bonebrake from the University of Hong Kong hunts butterflies with a large net. Photo: HKEJ

Butterfly catcher exalts Hong Kong biodiversity

He will jokingly tell you he is a Pokémon catcher but Dr. Timothy Bonebrake actually hunts butterflies.

Bonebrake is an assistant professor in earth sciences and biological sciences in the University of Hong Kong.

Born and raised in urban Los Angeles, he became interested in wildlife at an early age thanks to frequent family outings to national parks.

His initial research interest was in birds but it was no easy task.

“I was working on a study on parrots. I spent an entire summer trying to capture them but it was very difficult,” he said.

“They were wild and would bite a lot. I found the project too stressful and not so satisfying. The wait for one bird could take up to four days.” 

Butterflies, on the other hand, are easier and more fun.

“First of all, they don’t bite. And I could get a lot of them at one time. That keeps me working,” he said.

There are more butterfly species in Hong Kong than in Los Angeles.

For instance, he could find more than 50 in an average park in Kowloon while it would take him two years in LA’s Griffith Park to identify 30 species.

The impact of climate change is more observable because it is reflected in the changes in butterfly biodiversity.

“They are very sensitive to temperature changes. You can’t see them when the weather is cold or when it’s cloudy,” he said.

“The trend that butterfly distribution is going north shows the fact that places that used to be too cold are becoming habitable to them, which is in line with global warming predictions.”

Another research focus for Bonebrake is urban ecology.

Quite a number of city dwellers have pondered the importance of maintaining biodiversity in highly urbanized cities such as LA and Hong Kong.

Bonebrake said there is no stock answer for it. However, he said balance in the ecological system has to be achieved regardless of the environment we live in.

“If there aren’t enough birds, we will be overwhelmed by insects. If there aren’t enough insects, plants would grow uncontrollably. Or take it from another way: for such a beautiful world we live in, we should bear some responsibility to protect it.”

Hong Kong is an excellent case where urban areas are surrounded by dense green patches.

It shows it is not impossible to achieve biodiversity with city development.

It would be a tremendous loss if Hong Kong does not safeguard its country parks, Bonebrake said.

“When the world is getting urbanized, we humans start to forget that we are actually living in a world with many other living organisms,” he said.

“From an ecological point of view, everything is interlinked. It is important for us to understand how urbanization affects other species.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 16

Translation by Darlie Yiu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Timothy Bonebrake (left) and PhD student Toby Tsang take butterfly samples in Hong Kong’s urban parks for their research paper. Photo: Timothy Bonebrake

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal