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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Greg A. Breed.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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