Letter | Published:

Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming

Naturevolume 399pages579583 (1999) | Download Citation



Mean global temperatures have risen this century, and further warming is predicted to continue for the next 50–100 years1,2,3. Some migratory species can respond rapidly to yearly climate variation by altering the timing or destination of migration4, but most wildlife is sedentary and so is incapable of such a rapid response. For these species, responses to the warming trend should be slower, reflected in poleward shifts of the range. Such changes in distribution would occur at the level of the population, stemming not from changes in the pattern of individuals' movements, but from changes in the ratios of extinctions to colonizations at the northern and southern boundaries of the range. A northward range shift therefore occurs when there is net extinction at the southern boundary or net colonization at the northern boundary. However, previous evidence has been limited to a single species5 or to only a portion of the species' range6,7. Here we provide the first large-scale evidence of poleward shifts in entire species' ranges. In a sample of 35 non-migratory European butterflies, 63% have ranges that have shifted to the north by 35–240 km during this century, and only 3% have shifted to the south.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Easterling, D. R. et al. Maximum and minimum temperature trends for the globe. Science 277, 364–367 (1997).

  2. 2

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 1995. Report of Working Group I (eds Houghton, J. T. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, (1996).

  3. 3

    Beniston, M. et al. in The Regional Impacts of Climate Change. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group II(eds Watson, R. T., Zinyowera, M. C. & Moss, R. H.) 149–185 (Cambridge Univ. Press, (1998).

  4. 4

    Root, T. L. in Elements of Change 1996(eds Hassol, S. J. & Katzenberger, J.) 203–206 (Aspen Global Change Institute, Aspen, Colorado, (1997).

  5. 5

    Parmesan, C. Climate and species' range. Nature 382, 765–766 (1996).

  6. 6

    Barry, J. P., Baxtern, C. H. K., Sagarin, R. D. & Gilman, S. E. Climate-related long-term faunal changes in a California rocky intertidal community. Science 267, 672–675 (1995).

  7. 7

    Grabherr, G., Gottfried, M. & Pauli, H. Climate effects on mountain plants. Nature 369, 448 (1994).

  8. 8

    Davis, A. J., Jenkinson, L. S., Lawton, J. H., Shorrocks, B. & Wood, S. Making mistakes when predicting shifts in species range in response to global warming. Nature 391, 783–786 (1998).

  9. 9

    Thomas, C. D. & Hanski, I. in Metapopulation Biology: Ecology, Genetics and Evolution(eds Hanski, I. & Gilpin, M. E.) 359–386 (Academic, London, (1997).

  10. 10

    Thomas, C. D., Thomas, J. A. & Warren, M. S. Distributions of occupied and vacant butterfly habitats in fragmented landscapes. Oecologia 92, 563–567 (1992).

  11. 11

    Baldock, D. Agriculture and habitat loss in Europe (CAP Discussion paper No 3, Gland, Switzerland, (1990).

  12. 12

    Karl, T. R., Knight, R. W., Easterling, D. R. & Quayle, R. G. Indices of climate change for the United States. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 279–292 (1996).

  13. 13

    Dennis, R. L. H. Butterflies and Climate Change(Manchester Univ. Press, (1993).

  14. 14

    Coope, G. R. in Extinction Rates(eds Lawton, J. & May, R.) 55–74 (Oxford Univ. Press, (1995).

  15. 15

    Uvarov, B. P. Insects and climate. Trans. Entomol. Soc. Lond. 79, 174–186 (1931).

  16. 16

    Ford, E. B. Butterflies(Collins, London, (1945).

  17. 17

    Kaisila, J. Immigration und Expansion der Lepidopteren in Finnland in den Jahren 1869–1960(ACTA Entomologica Fennica, Helsinki, (1962).

  18. 18

    Pollard, E. & Eversham, B. C. in Ecology and Conservation of Butterflies(ed. Pullin, A. S.) 23–36 (Chapman & Hall, London, (1995).

  19. 19

    Ackery, P. R. Systematic and faunistic studies on butterflies.In Biology of Butterflies(eds Vane-Wright, R. I. & Ackery, P. R.) 9–21 (Academic, London, (1984).

  20. 20

    Tolman, T. Butterflies of Britain and Europe(HarperCollins, London, (1997).

Download references


We thank the huge number of amateur lepidopterists throughout Europe who have collected most of the data. Data sets are from private collectors' records, regional lists and publications, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, the Lepidopterological Society of Sweden, the Natural History Museum, London (BMNH), the Museum of Zoology of Barcelona, Societat Catalana de Lepidopterologia and Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (Departament de Medi Ambient, Generalitat de Catalunya), Biological Records Centre (ITE, Monks Wood, UK), Butterfly Conservation (UK), Estonian Naturalists' Society, Lepidopterological Society of Finland, and Finnish Museum of Natural History. This project was facilitated by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, P. R. Ackery, D. Blakeley and M. C. Singer. We thank A. N. Cohen, T. Lewinsohn, F. Micheli, W. Porter, J. Roughgarden, M. C. Singer, F.Wagner, R. I. Vane-Wright and M. Willig for comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Author notes

    • Camille Parmesan

    Present address: Integrative Biology, Patterson Laboratories, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, 78712, USA


  1. National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, 735 State Street, Suite 300, Santa Barbara, 93101, California, USA

    • Camille Parmesan
  2. Evolutionary Biology Centre, Section of Zoological Ecology, Uppsala University, Norbyvgen 18 D, S-752 36, Uppsala, Sweden

    • Nils Ryrholm
  3. Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, Can Liro, 08458 Sant Pere de Vilamajor, Barcelona, Spain

    • Constantí Stefanescu
  4. Department of Biological Sciences, Environmental Research Centre, University of Durham, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK

    • Jane K. Hill
    •  & Brian Huntley
  5. Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, School of Biology, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK

    • Chris D. Thomas
  6. Laboratoire de Systématique Évolutive, Université de Provence, 3 place Victor Hugo, Marseille, 13331 Cedex 3, France

    • Henri Descimon
  7. Division of Entomology, Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 17, Helsinki, FIN-00014, Finland

    • Lauri Kaila
    •  & Jaakko Kullberg
  8. Institute of Zoology and Botany, Estonian Agricultural University, Riia 181, EE-51014, Tartu, Estonia

    • Toomas Tammaru
  9. Biogeography and Conservation Laboratory, The Natural History Museum (BMNH), London, SW7 5BD, UK

    • W. John Tennent
  10. Furzebrook Research Station, Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Wareham, BH20 5AS, Dorset, UK

    • Jeremy A. Thomas
  11. Butterfly Conservation, P.O. Box 444, Wareham, BH20 5YA, Dorset, UK

    • Martin Warren


  1. Search for Camille Parmesan in:

  2. Search for Nils Ryrholm in:

  3. Search for Constantí Stefanescu in:

  4. Search for Jane K. Hill in:

  5. Search for Chris D. Thomas in:

  6. Search for Henri Descimon in:

  7. Search for Brian Huntley in:

  8. Search for Lauri Kaila in:

  9. Search for Jaakko Kullberg in:

  10. Search for Toomas Tammaru in:

  11. Search for W. John Tennent in:

  12. Search for Jeremy A. Thomas in:

  13. Search for Martin Warren in:

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Camille Parmesan.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history



Issue Date



Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.