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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.

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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.


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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.

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Correspondence to C. D. Thomas.

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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).

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