Interacting effects of climate change and habitat fragmentation on drought-sensitive butterflies

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of some climatic extremes1, 2. These may have drastic impacts on biodiversity3, 4, particularly if meteorological thresholds are crossed, leading to population collapses. Should this occur repeatedly, populations may be unable to recover, resulting in local extinctions. Comprehensive time series data on butterflies in Great Britain provide a rare opportunity to quantify population responses to both past severe drought and the interaction with habitat area and fragmentation. Here, we combine this knowledge with future projections from multiple climate models, for different Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), and for simultaneous modelled responses to different landscape characteristics. Under RCP8.5, which is associated with ‘business as usual emissions, widespread drought-sensitive butterfly population extinctions could occur as early as 2050. However, by managing landscapes and particularly reducing habitat fragmentation, the probability of persistence until mid-century improves from around zero to between 6 and 42% (95% confidence interval). Achieving persistence with a greater than 50% chance and right through to 2100 is possible only under both low climate change (RCP2.6) and semi-natural habitat restoration. Our data show that, for these drought-sensitive butterflies, persistence is achieved more effectively by restoring semi-natural landscapes to reduce fragmentation, rather than simply focusing on increasing habitat area, but this will only be successful in combination with substantial emission reductions.

At a glance


  1. The impacts of historical drought on sensitive butterfly species.
    Figure 1: The impacts of historical drought on sensitive butterfly species.

    a, Example response of a single population of Pararge aegeria showing the degree of population collapse (vertical dotted line) and recovery rate (solid line) from the 1995 drought event. b, Identification of this species as ‘drought-sensitive from its decline across a significant proportion of sites (see Supplementary Fig. 1 for additional criteria). c, Median population collapse and recovery rate for each of the species shown in d, with the interquartile range for both in parentheses.

  2. Scenarios of land-use change and aridity in a future climate.
    Figure 2: Scenarios of land-use change and aridity in a future climate.

    a, Projected changes in annual aridity index for central England under different RCP emissions scenarios from 17 CMIP5 global circulation models. Observed data from the UK Met Office are shown as black points with a five-year moving average trend line. Aridity in 1995 is shown by the dashed horizontal line. b, Semi-natural habitat (SNH) metrics in 3km radii around the 129 butterfly monitoring scheme sites analysed (open black circles and contours showing probability density surface, with vertical and horizontal lines showing ± s.d. from the mean). The lettered intersections (A–D) refer to the habitat scenarios for which we modelled butterfly persistence under future climate projections, along with the current mean habitat (E). Also in b, the black points and coloured probability density surface show the ‘average English landscape from SNH metrics in 3km radii around 2,443 stratified randomized samples across lowland England. c, Four butterfly monitoring sites that exemplify the SNH characteristics one standard deviation away from the monitoring site means, corresponding to the labelled intersections A–D in b.

  3. Combined effects of climate change and habitat.
    Figure 3: Combined effects of climate change and habitat.

    The percentage of GCMs for which butterfly persistence occurs—that is, where return time of severe drought events is longer than the recovery time of the average butterfly population in a 30-year moving window—under four semi-natural habitat scenarios, with lettering matching scenarios in Fig. 2: a, high area and low edge index; b, low area and low edge index; c, high area and high edge index; d, low area and high edge index; e, current mean around monitoring sites. Lines within each plot show the predictions under two RCP extreme emissions pathways (RCP2.6 in blue, RCP8.5 in red, with 95% confidence intervals as shaded envelopes). Results from intermediate RCP pathways RCP4.5 (orange) and RCP6.0 (black) are also incorporated on the right-hand side bars, which show the probability of persistence with maximum ± 95% CI between 2050 and 2100 (that is, between 30-year window midpoints 2065–2085).


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  1. NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8BB, UK

    • Tom H. Oliver,
    • Christel Prudhomme &
    • Chris Huntingford
  2. University of Reading, Whiteknights, PO Box 217, Reading, Berkshire RG6 6AH, UK

    • Tom H. Oliver
  3. University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9FE, UK

    • Harry H. Marshall
  4. Natural England, Foundry House, 3 Millsands, Riverside Exchange, Sheffield S3 8NH, UK

    • Mike D. Morecroft
  5. Butterfly Conservation, Manor Yard, East Lulworth, Wareham, Dorset BH20 5QP, UK

    • Tom Brereton


T.H.O. conceived the study with input from M.D.M.; C.P. and C.H. analysed climate data; H.H.M. and T.H.O. analysed butterfly responses to habitat and climate; all authors interpreted results and contributed to writing the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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