Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Rapid responses of British butterflies to opposing forces of climate and habitat change


Habitat degradation and climate change are thought to be altering the distributions and abundances of animals and plants throughout the world, but their combined impacts have not been assessed for any species assemblage1,2,3,4. Here we evaluated changes in the distribution sizes and abundances of 46 species of butterflies that approach their northern climatic range margins in Britain—where changes in climate and habitat are opposing forces. These insects might be expected to have responded positively to climate warming over the past 30 years, yet three-quarters of them declined: negative responses to habitat loss have outweighed positive responses to climate warming. Half of the species that were mobile and habitat generalists increased their distribution sites over this period (consistent with a climate explanation), whereas the other generalists and 89% of the habitat specialists declined in distribution size (consistent with habitat limitation). Changes in population abundances closely matched changes in distributions. The dual forces of habitat modification and climate change are likely to cause specialists to decline, leaving biological communities with reduced numbers of species and dominated by mobile and widespread habitat generalists.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Reduced distribution of the high-brown fritillary.
Figure 2: Proportional changes in distribution sizes of butterflies between 1970–82 and 1995–99 .
Figure 3: Correlation between changes in the abundance and distribution of butterflies.
Figure 4: Climate and species ranges.


  1. Thomas, J. A., Rose, R. J., Clarke, R. T., Thomas, C. D. & Webb, N. R. Intraspecific variation in habitat availability among ectothermic animals near their climatic limits and at their centres of range. Funct. Ecol. 13, 55–64 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Hill, J. K. et al. Impacts of landscape structure on butterfly range expansion. Ecol. Lett. 4, 313–321 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Coope, G. R. in Insects in a Changing Environment (eds Harringon, R. & Stork, N.) 29–48 (Academic, London, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Groombridge, B. Global Biodiversity (Chapman & Hall, London, 1992).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  5. Jones, P. D. & Hulme, M. in Climates of the British Isles: Present, Past and Future (eds Hulme, M. & Barrow, E.) 173–196 (Routledge, London, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Roy, D. B. & Sparks, T. H. Phenology of British butterflies and climate change. Glob. Change Biol. 6, 407–416 (2000).

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Thomas, J. A. Holocene climate changes and warm man-made refugia may explain why a sixth of British butterflies possess unnatural early-successional habitats. Ecography 16, 278–284 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Thomas, J. A., Moss, D. & Pollard, E. Increased fluctuations by butterfly populations towards the northern margins of species' ranges. Ecography 17, 215–220 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Roy, D. B., Rothery, P., Moss, D., Polalrd, E. & Thomas, J. A. Butterfly numbers and weather: predicting historical trends in abundance and the future effects of climate change. J. Anim. Ecol. 70, 201–217 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Parmesan, C. et al. Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming. Nature 399, 579–583 (1999).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Hughes, L. Biological consequences of global warming: is the signal already present? Trends Ecol. Evol. 15, 56–61 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Hill, J. K., Thomas, C. D. & Huntley, B. Climate and habitat availability determine 20th century changes in a butterfly's range margins. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 266, 1197–1206 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Asher, J. et al. The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Pollard, E. & Yates, T. J. Monitoring Butterflies for Ecology and Conservation (Chapman & Hall, London, 1993).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Dennis, R. L. H. & Shreeve, T. G. Diversity of butterflies on British Islands: ecological influences underlying the roles of area and isolation and the size of the faunal source. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 60, 257–275 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Heath, J., Pollard, E. & Thomas, J. A. Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland (Viking, Harmondsworth, 1984).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Thomas, C. D. Dispersal and extinction in fragmented landscapes. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 267, 139–145 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hill, J. K., Thomas, C. D., Fox, R., Moss, D. & Huntley, B. in Insect Movement: Mechanisms and Consequences (eds Woiwod, I., Reynolds, D. & Thomas, C. D.) 415–441 (CABI, London, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Thomas, C. D. et al. Ecological and evolutionary processes at expanding range margins. Nature 411, 577–581 (2001).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Cowley, M. J. R., Thomas, C. D., Thomas, J. A. & Warren, M. S. Flight areas of British butterflies: assessing species status and decline. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 266, 1587–1592 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Maes, D. & Van Dyck, H. Butterfly diversity loss in Flanders (north Belgium): Europe's worst case scenario? Biol. Conserv. 99, 263–276 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Huntley, B., Berry, P. M., Cramer, W. & McDonald, A. Modelling present and potential future ranges of some European higher plants using climate response surfaces. J. Biogeog. 22, 967–1001 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

  24. Monserud, R. A. & Leemans, R. Comparing global vegetation maps with the Kappa statistic. Ecol. Model 62, 275–293 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Van Swaay, C. & Warren, M. S. Red Data Book of European Butterflies (Rhopalocera) (Nature and Environment Series No. 99, Council of Europe, Strasbourg, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Moss, D. & Pollard, E. Calculation of collated indices of abundance of butterflies based on monitored sites. Ecol. Entomol. 18, 77–83 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Cowley, M. J. R. et al. Density-distribution relationships in British butterflies. I. The effect of mobility and spatial scale. J. Anim. Ecol. 70, 410–425 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Purvis, A. & Rambaut, A. Comparative analysis by independent contrasts (CAIC): an Apple Macintosh application for analysing comparative data. Comp. Appl. Biosci. 11, 247–251 (1995).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Leemans, R. & Cramer, W. Research Report RR-91-18 (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria, 1991).

Download references


We thank the many thousand recorders who contributed to the atlas surveys and transect schemes. We also thank W. Cramer for providing the spline surfaces used to interpolate the climate anomalies, and P. Mayhew for giving helpful advice on using CAIC. This work was supported by the Butterfly Conservation, the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, the Vincent Wildlife Trust, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and NERC.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. D. Thomas.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Warren, M., Hill, J., Thomas, J. et al. Rapid responses of British butterflies to opposing forces of climate and habitat change. Nature 414, 65–69 (2001).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


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.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing