UF, Disney To Partner On Conservation Initiative

Jaret Daniels examines a giant yellow swallowtail at the UF campus. Daniels will lead the butterfly research in the new DCF initiative. Photo by UF IFAS/Tyler Jones
Jaret Daniels examines a giant yellow swallowtail at the UF campus. Daniels will lead the butterfly research in the new DCF initiative. (Photo courtesy UF IFAS)

Florida and California are home to some of the most diverse butterfly populations in the country — populations that are being seriously threatened by habitat specialization and urban development.

However, through a new partnership between Disney and the University of Florida, these butterflies and nine other animal species will have a chance of receiving protection and restoration.

The Disney Conservation Fund announced its “Reverse the Decline, Increase the Time” initiative Tuesday in honor of the fund’s 20th anniversary. UF is the only university partnering with the initiative.

The initiative is aimed at reversing the decline of 10 threatened species through scientific research, community engagement and inspiring the next generation to care about the planet, according to information provided by a Walt Disney World representative. It will operate in two phases: an “increase the time” phase geared at encouraging children to spend time in nature and a “reverse the decline” phase to protect threatened species.

UF’s role in the program is the study and protection of sea turtles and butterflies, two of the 10 species being targeted in the initiative. UF’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity will employ research efforts in Florida and California, while the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research will conduct conservation projects in a variety of locations, including Florida and the Bahamas.

Alan Bolten, associate director of the Archie Carr Center, said researchers will evaluate the effects of climate change on sea turtle development and nesting. They will also examine sources of mortality among sea turtles, such as debris and construction materials left on beaches, boat propellers and becoming bycatch in commercial fishing.

The Archie Carr Center will also pursue legal initiatives in addition to scientific research. Bolten said they are working with government in the Bahamas to reduce illegal sea turtle harvest, and hoping to work with a conservation working group at UF’s law school to examine diversity-related legal tools.

“We’re trying to approach this from many different ways so that we can ensure that sea turtles are with us for a long time,” Bolten said.

ACCSTR Director Karen Bjorndal said that, in the past, the center has developed conservation-related strategies, but has been unable to initiate them due to lack of funding. With the Disney partnership, the ACCSTR now has the means to bring some of these plans to fruition.

“We now have the follow-up funds that we can invest in the strategies and accomplish some of the goals defined in them,” Bjorndal said.

Jaret Daniels, associate curator and program director at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, said that both centers had to submit a proposal to Disney be considered for the partnership.

According to Daniels, UF and Disney have had a working relationship over sea turtle and butterfly protection efforts in the past, and this relationship and the quality of the submitted proposals led to UF being selected as a partner.

“I think it was the solid proposal that resonated with Disney, as well as the quality of the entity they’re partnering with,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the butterfly-related research will focus on big topic ideas such as identification of threatened species, habitat restoration and breeding.

“The goal is to really focus on the systems and species and develop the right strategies to recover those individual organisms,” Daniels said. “Public education is a major component of this, because we need to increase awareness of these organisms and their decline.”

Daniels said that the initiative will operate on a year-by-year basis, but it is ultimately expected to be about a 10-year project. He hopes that through the project, UF can develop new partnerships and launch and sustain new projects that will have a deep impact on threatened species.

“[Disney] has had a long-standing philanthropic role and this is a really unique and impactful level of giving on their part,” Daniels said. “This is wonderful for conservation, that they have the ability to work for a longer period of time, because conservation doesn’t happen overnight.”

Walt Disney World could not yet provide information about specific funding amounts. The DCF has awarded $40 million dollars in grants to nonprofit organizations since it was founded in 1995.

About Sarah Chrisien

Sarah is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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