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Population stability ‘hope’ in species’ response to climate change

Posted on 6 January 2014

Stable population trends are a prerequisite for species’ range expansion, according to new research led by scientists at the University of York.

Adonis blue and the chalkhill blue butterfly use the same host plant, Horseshoe Vetch, and are found in similar habitats in the south of England. However the adonis blue has shown positive abundance changes and has expanded its distribution area, while the chalkhill blue has shown a negative abundance trend and has not expanded its range. Credit: Peter Eeles/Butterfly Conservation

The climate in Britain has warmed over the last four decades, and many species, including butterflies, have shifted their distributions northwards. The extent of distribution changes has varied greatly among species, however, with some showing rapid expansion and others showing none at all. But this variation can be explained by taking into account the abundance trends of species.

The study by researchers in Department of Biology at York, Butterfly Conservation and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Centre for Ecology and Hydrology showed that butterflies were able to expand their distributions only if they had stable (or increasing) abundance trends. It is published by Nature Climate Change.

For those species with stable or increasing population trends that have been expanding their distributions, the amount of suitable habitat available in the landscape is important. The more habitat that is available, the faster a species can expand its distribution area.

Using data on butterfly distributions and abundances, collected by members of the public since the 1970s through ‘citizen science’ schemes, Louise Mair, a PhD student in Biology at York, and her colleagues examined factors limiting butterfly range expansion. These data reveal that species that were previously restricted to southern England are colonising northern England and Scotland. Butterflies have extended their distributions in this way because warmer climates have made northern regions increasingly more hospitable for these temperature-constrained insects.

The study concludes that conservation management must consider existing populations and ensure that species abundances are stable or increasing in order for them to be able to respond to climate change. Increasing the amount of natural habitat in the landscape is an important conservation goal, which should increase the rate of distribution expansion for species with stable or increasing populations. However, habitat creation will not be effective for promoting range expansion by species whose populations are declining.

Population trends can be affected by many things, including local environment conditions, and in recent decades most British butterflies have undergone population declines. More effort is needed to boost abundances within species’ current ranges in order to protect wildlife as the climate and landscape changes.

Louise Mair says: “My previous research revealed huge variation among butterflies in relation to their range expansion rates.  It’s now clear from our new research that much of this variation can be accounted for once species’ population trends are known.”

Professor Jane Hill at York says: “Increasing habitat availability in the landscape has been suggested as a way to help species respond to climate change, but our research shows this will only be effective for species whose abundances are stable or increasing.”

Dr Richard Fox at Butterfly Conservation says:  “We are grateful to the thousands of volunteer recorders who have collected these butterfly data over the past years. Their efforts and the information they’ve gathered are proving crucial to our understanding of the impacts of climate change on British butterflies. These latest research findings have important implications for our work to conserve threatened butterflies.”

Dr Marc Botham, at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, says: “Our research highlights the importance of the long-running UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme for developing effective conservation measures for British butterflies.”

Chris Thomas, Professor of Conservation Biology at York, adds: “Conservation management to increase species’ abundances within their ranges is a vital step in the process of helping species respond to climate changes.”

Notes to editors:

  • Mair, L., Hill, J. K., Fox, R.,  Botham, M., Brereton, T. & Thomas, C. D. (2014) Abundance changes and habitat availability drive species’ responses to climate change. Nature Climate Change. www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v4/n2/full/nclimate2086.html
  • Images of butterflies are available for the media to download here: www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2014/research/species-abundance/gallery
  • This paper presents research funded by a Natural Environment Research Council grant (NE/H00940X/1).
  • The project was led by Professor Jane Hill and Professor Chris Thomas, the principle investigators.
  • The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funds world-class science, in universities and its own research centres, that increases knowledge and understanding of the natural world. It is tackling major environmental issues such as climate change, biodiversity and natural hazards. NERC receives around £320m a year from the government's science budget, which is used to provide independent research and training in the environmental sciences. www.nerc.ac.uk
  • More information about the University of York’s Department of Biology at www.york.ac.uk/biology
  • The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK’s Centre of Excellence for integrated research in the land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council, employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales, hosts over 150 PhD students and has an overall budget of £35m. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment. www.ceh.ac.uk You can follow the latest developments in CEH research via twitter @CEHScienceNews and our rss news feed www.ceh.ac.uk/rss.xml
  • More information about Butterfly Conservation at www.butterfly-conservation.org

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