Letters to Nature

Nature 432, 393-396 (18 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/nature03031; Received 23 July 2004; Accepted 17 September 2004

Spatial patterns in species distributions reveal biodiversity change

Robert J. Wilson1,4, Chris D. Thomas1,4, Richard Fox2, David B. Roy3 & William E. Kunin1

  1. Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK
  2. Butterfly Conservation, Manor Yard, East Lulworth, Wareham, Dorset BH20 5QP, UK
  3. NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire PE28 2LS, UK
  4. Present addresses: Área de Biodiversidad y Conservación, Escuela Superior de Ciencias Experimentales y Tecnología, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Tulipán s/n, Móstoles, Madrid, E-28933, Spain (R.J.W.); Department of Biology, University of York, P.O. Box 373, York YO10 5YW, UK (C.D.T.).

Correspondence to: Robert J. Wilson1,4 Email: rwilson@escet.urjc.es

Interpretation of global biodiversity change is hampered by a lack of information on the historical status of most species in most parts of the world1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Here we show that declines and increases can be deduced from current species distributions alone, using spatial patterns of occupancy combined with distribution size. Declining species show sparse, fragmented distributions for their distribution size, reflecting the extinction process; expanding species show denser, more aggregated distributions, reflecting colonization. Past distribution size changes for British butterflies were deduced successfully from current distributions, and former distributions had some power to predict future change. What is more, the relationship between distribution pattern and change in British butterflies independently predicted distribution change for butterfly species in Flanders, Belgium, and distribution change in British rare plant species is similarly related to spatial distribution pattern. This link between current distribution patterns and processes of distribution change could be used to assess relative levels of threat facing different species, even for regions and taxa lacking detailed historical and ecological information.

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