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Spatial patterns in species distributions reveal biodiversity change


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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Figure 1: Maps and associated scale–area curves for 1995–99 distributions of British butterfly species.
Figure 2: Observed changes in distribution size against changes estimated from distribution pattern and size.


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We thank the contributors to the butterfly and plant distribution surveys in Britain and Flanders; J. Asher and J. A. Thomas for calculating British rates of decline; and M. de la Cruz, A. Escudero, S. Hartley, J. Perry and M. Pocock for assistance with analyses. The work was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council. Maps were produced in DMap.

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Correspondence to Robert J. Wilson.

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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Methods

Supplementary methods and analyses, including: list of species analysed; phylogenetic regression; sensitivity to sample size, scale and method used to quantify aggregation; tests of other explanatory variables (population density and mobility); analyses of Flanders butterflies and British plants; associated supplementary references S1–S19. (DOC 57 kb)

Supplementary Tables 1–8

Tables showing relationships of distribution change, pattern and size for British and Flanders butterflies. (DOC 108 kb)

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Wilson, R., Thomas, C., Fox, R. et al. Spatial patterns in species distributions reveal biodiversity change. Nature 432, 393–396 (2004).

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