Abundance changes and habitat availability drive species’ responses to climate change


There is little consensus as to why there is so much variation in the rates at which different species’ geographic ranges expand in response to climate warming1,2. Here we show that the relative importance of species’ abundance trends and habitat availability for British butterfly species vary over time. Species with high habitat availability expanded more rapidly from the 1970s to mid-1990s, when abundances were generally stable, whereas habitat availability effects were confined to the subset of species with stable abundances from the mid-1990s to 2009, when abundance trends were generally declining. This suggests that stable (or positive) abundance trends are a prerequisite for range expansion. Given that species’ abundance trends vary over time3 for non-climatic as well as climatic reasons, assessment of abundance trends will help improve predictions of species’ responses to climate change, and help us to understand the likely success of different conservation strategies for facilitating their expansions.

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Figure 1: Change in species’ distribution area in relation to habitat availability, dispersal ability and change in abundance (at continuously occupied transect sites).
Figure 2: The distribution and colonization distances of Polygonnia c-album.
Figure 3: Colonization distance for distribution-expanding species in relation to habitat availability, dispersal ability and change in abundance.


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We thank the large number of recorders contributing data to the UKBMS and the BNM data sets. The UKBMS is operated by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Butterfly Conservation and financially supported by a consortium of government agencies. L.M., J.H.K. and C.D.T. were supported by NERC grant NE/H00940X/1.

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J.K.H. and C.D.T. conceived and supervised the study and edited the manuscript. R.F., M.B. and T.B. provided data and edited the manuscript. L.M. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Louise Mair.

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Mair, L., Hill, J., Fox, R. et al. Abundance changes and habitat availability drive species’ responses to climate change. Nature Clim Change 4, 127–131 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2086

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