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.

Climate-driven changes in northeastern US butterfly communities


Climate warming is expected to change the distribution and abundance of many species1,2,3. Range shifts have been detected in a number of European taxa for which long-term government-initiated or organized-survey data are available4,5,6,7,8. In North America, well-organized long-term data needed to document such shifts are much less common. Opportunistic observations made by citizen scientist groups may be an excellent alternative to systematic surveys9. From 1992 to 2010, 19,779 butterfly surveys were made by amateur naturalists in Massachusetts, a geographically small state located at the convergence of northern and southern bioclimatic zones in eastern North America. From these data, we estimated population trends for nearly all butterfly species (100 of 116 species present) using list-length analysis10,11. Population trajectories indicate increases of many species near their northern range limits and declines in nearly all species (17 of 21) near their southern range limits. Certain life-history traits, especially overwintering stage, were strongly associated with declines. Our results suggest that a major, climate-induced shift of North American butterflies, characterized by northward expansions of warm-adapted and retreat of cold-adapted species, is underway.

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

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Population trajectories with 90% confidence intervals for butterfly species in Massachusetts, with range type (northerly versus southerly, symbol colour) and overwintering stage (symbol shape) superimposed.
Figure 2: Regional analysis.
Figure 3: Raw MBC reports for the atlantis fritillary (Speyeria atlantis), which is near its southern range limit in Massachusetts.


  1. Parmesan, C. Climate and species’ range. Nature 382, 756–766 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Parmesan, C. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 37, 637–669 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Mitikka, V. et al. Predicting range expansion of the map butterfly in Northern Europe using bioclimatic models. Biodivers. Conserv. 17, 623–641 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Hill, J. K. et al. Responses of butterflies to twentieth century climate warming: Implications for future ranges. Proc. R. Soc. B 269, 2163–2171 (2002).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Hickling, R., Roy, D. B., Hill, J. K. & Thomas, C. D. A northward shift of range margins in British Odonata. Glob. Change Biol. 11, 502–506 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Franco, A. M. A. et al. Impacts of climate warming and habitat loss on extinctions at species’ low-latitude range boundaries. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 1545–1553 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Pöyry, J., Luoto, M., Heikkinen, R., Kuussaari, M. & Saarinen, K. Species traits explain recent range shifts of finnish butterflies. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 732–743 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Dickinson, J., Zuckerberg, B. & Bonter, D. Citizen science as an ecological research tool: Challenges and benefits. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 41, 149–172 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Szabo, J. K., Vesk, P. A., Baxter, P. W. J. & Possingham, H. P. Regional avian species declines estimated from volunteer-collected long-term data using list length analysis. Ecol. Appl. 20, 2157–2169 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Szabo, J. K., Vesk, P. A., Baxter, P. W. J. & Possingham, H. P. Paying the extinction debt: Woodland birds in the mount lofty ranges, South Australia. Emu 111, 59–70 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Cohn, J. Citizen science: Can volunteers do real research? BioScience 58, 192–197 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Silvertown, J. A new dawn for citizen science. Trends Ecol. Evol. 24, 467–471 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Beckage, B., Osborne, B., Gavin, D., Pucko, C., Siccama, T. & Perkins, T. A rapid upward shift of a forest ecotone during 40 years of warming in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 4197–4202 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Kelly, A. & Goulden, M. Rapid shifts in plant distribution with recent climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 11823–11826 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Rodenhouse, N. L., Christenson, L. M., Parry, D. & Green, L. E. Climate change effects on native fauna of northeastern forests. Can. J. Forest Res. 39, 249–263 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Leahy, C. W., Cassie, B. & Walton, R. K. Massachusetts Butterfly Atlas 1986–1990 (Massachusetts Audubon Society, 2006); available at

  18. Finkbeiner, S. D., Reed, R. D., Dirig, R. & Losey, J. E. The role of environmental factors in the northeastern range expansion of Papilio cresphontes Cramer (Papilionidae). J. Lepid. Soc. 65, 119–125 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Thomas, C. D., Franco, A. M. A. & Hill, J. K. Range retractions and extinction in the face of climate warming. Trends Ecol. Evol. 21, 415–416 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Bulman, C. et al. Minimum viable metapopulation size, extinction debt, and the conservation of a declining species. Ecol. Appl. 17, 1460–1473 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Pelini, S. L. et al. Translocation experiments with butterflies reveal limits to enhancement of poleward populations under climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 11160–11165 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Pelini, S. L., Keppel, J. A., Kelley, A. E. & Hellmann, J. J. Adaptation to host plants may prevent rapid insect responses to climate change. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 2923–2929 (2010).

    Google Scholar 

  23. Wallisdevries, M. & Van Swaay, C. Global warming and excess nitrogen may induce butterfly decline by microclimatic cooling. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 1620–1626 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Thomas, C. Extinction, colonization, and metapopulations: Environmental tracking by rare species. Conserv. Biol. 8, 373–378 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Schemske, D. et al. Evaluating approaches to the conservation of rare and endangered plants. Ecology 75, 584–606 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Scott, J. The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide (Stanford Univ. Press, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Opler, P. A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  28. Opler, P. A., Lotts, K. & Naberhaus, T. Butterflies and Moths of North America,, Version 12/15/2011 (2011).

  29. PRISM Climate Group. (2012). Accessed Feb 19, 2012.

Download references


We thank B. Hall for assistance in producing figures, I. Myers-Smith for comments on earlier drafts, the MBC for graciously providing unfettered access to their extensive data set and Harvard University for financial and logistical support to conduct the analysis.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



E.E.C. and G.A.B. conceived the analysis. G.A.B. coded and implemented the analysis and created all figures. G.A.B. and E.E.C. wrote the manuscript. S.S. collected, organized and maintained the MBC observations database, provided help in understanding how the data were collected and archived, and provided feedback on earlier drafts.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Greg A. Breed.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1409 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Breed, G., Stichter, S. & Crone, E. Climate-driven changes in northeastern US butterfly communities. Nature Clim Change 3, 142–145 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


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