Large-scale biodiversity changes are measured mainly through the responses of a few taxonomic groups. Much less is known about the trends affecting most invertebrates and other neglected taxa, and it is unclear whether well-studied taxa, such as vertebrates, reflect changes in wider biodiversity. Here, we present and analyse trends in the UK distributions of over 5,000 species of invertebrates, bryophytes and lichens, measured as changes in occupancy. Our results reveal substantial variation in the magnitude, direction and timing of changes over the last 45 years. Just one of the four major groups analysed, terrestrial non-insect invertebrates, exhibits the declining trend reported among vertebrates and butterflies. Both terrestrial insects and the bryophytes and lichens group increased in average occupancy. A striking pattern is found among freshwater species, which have undergone a strong recovery since the mid-1990s after two decades of decline. We show that, while average occupancy among most groups appears to have been stable or increasing, there has been substantial change in the relative commonness and rarity of individual species, indicating considerable turnover in community composition. Additionally, large numbers of species have experienced substantial declines. Our results suggest a more complex pattern of biodiversity change in the United Kingdom than previously reported.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $9.92 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The dataset analysed as a part of this study is publicly available from the Environmental Information Data Centre30. Additional information is supplied in the associated R package UKBiodiversity, which is available from GitHub (https://github.com/CharlieOuthwaite/UKBiodiversity), and Data Descriptor29.
The code used to analyse the data is available from GitHub in the R package UKBiodiversity (https://github.com/CharlieOuthwaite/UKBiodiversity).
Gregory, R. D. et al. Developing indicators for European birds. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 269–288 (2005).
McRae, L., Deinet, S. & Freeman, R. The diversity-weighted living planet index: controlling for taxonomic bias in a global biodiversity indicator. PLoS ONE 12, e0169156 (2017).
Brereton, T., Roy, D. B., Middlebrook, I., Botham, M. & Warren, M. The development of butterfly indicators in the United Kingdom and assessments in 2010. J. Insect Conserv. 15, 139–151 (2010).
Van Swaay, C. A. M. et al. The EU Butterfly Indicator for Grassland species: 1990-2017: Technical Report (Butterfly Conservation Europe & ABLE/eBMS, 2015).
Tittensor, D. P. et al. A mid-term analysis of progress toward international biodiversity targets. Science 346, 241–244 (2014).
Westgate, M. J., Barton, P. S., Lane, P. W. & Lindenmayer, D. B. Global meta-analysis reveals low consistency of biodiversity congruence relationships. Nat. Commun. 5, 3899 (2014).
Rodrigues, A. S. L. & Brooks, T. M. Shortcuts for biodiversity conservation planning: the effectiveness of surrogates. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 38, 713–737 (2007).
Hambler, C. & Speight, M. R. Extinction rates and butterflies. Science 305, 1563–1565 (2004).
van Strien, A. J. et al. Modest recovery of biodiversity in a western European country: the living planet index for the Netherlands. Biol. Conserv. 200, 44–50 (2016).
Hallmann, C. A. et al. More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas. PLoS ONE 12, e0185809 (2017).
Sánchez-Bayo, F. & Wyckhuys, K. A. G. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: a review of its drivers. Biol. Conserv. 232, 8–27 (2019).
Powney, G. D. et al. Widespread losses of pollinating insects in Britain. Nat. Commun. 10, 1018 (2019).
Simmons, B. I. et al. Worldwide insect declines: an important message, but interpret with caution. Ecol. Evol. 9, 3678–3680 (2019).
Thomas, C. D. & Jones, T. H. & Hartley, S. E. ‘Insectageddon’: a call for more robust data and rigorous analyses. Glob. Change Biol. 25, 1891–1892 (2019).
Burns, F. et al. Agricultural management and climatic change are the major drivers of biodiversity change in the UK. PLoS ONE 11, e0151595 (2016).
Burns, F. et al. An assessment of the state of nature in the United Kingdom: a review of findings, methods and impact. Ecol. Indic. 94, 226–236 (2018).
Hayhow, D. et al. The State of the UK’s Birds 2017 (RSPB, BTO, WWT, DAERA, JNCC, NE and NRW, 2017).
Fox, R. et al. The State of the UK’s Butterflies 2015 (Butterfly Conservation and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, 2015).
Maskell, L. C., Smart, S. M., Bullock, J. M., Thompson, K. & Stevens, C. J. Nitrogen deposition causes widespread loss of species richness in British habitats. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 671–679 (2010).
Barlow, K. E. et al. Citizen science reveals trends in bat populations: the National Bat Monitoring Programme in Great Britain. Biol. Conserv. 182, 14–26 (2015).
Pocock, M. J. O., Roy, H. E., Preston, C. D. & Roy, D. B. The Biological Records Centre: a pioneer of citizen science. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 115, 475–493 (2015).
Isaac, N. J. B. & Pocock, M. J. O. Bias and information in biological records. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 115, 522–531 (2015).
Boakes, E. H. et al. Distorted views of biodiversity: spatial and temporal bias in species occurrence data. PLoS Biol. 8, e1000385 (2010).
Maldonado, C. et al. Estimating species diversity and distribution in the era of Big Data: to what extent can we trust public databases? Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 24, 973–984 (2015).
Outhwaite, C. L. et al. Prior specification in Bayesian occupancy modelling improves analysis of species occurrence data. Ecol. Indic. 93, 333–343 (2018).
Isaac, N. J. B., van Strien, A. J., August, T. A., de Zeeuw, M. P. & Roy, D. B. Statistics for citizen science: extracting signals of change from noisy ecological data. Methods Ecol. Evol. 5, 1052–1060 (2014).
van Strien, A. J., van Swaay, C. A. M. & Termaat, T. Opportunistic citizen science data of animal species produce reliable estimates of distribution trends if analysed with occupancy models. J. Appl. Ecol. 50, 1450–1458 (2013).
Termaat, T. et al. Distribution trends of European dragonflies under climate change. Divers. Distrib. 25, 936–950 (2019).
Outhwaite, C. L. et al. Annual Estimates of Occupancy for Bryophytes, Lichens and Invertebrates in the UK (1970–2015) (NERC Environmental Information Data Centre, 2019); https://doi.org/10.5285/0ec7e549-57d4-4e2d-b2d3-2199e1578d84
Dornelas, M. et al. A balance of winners and losers in the Anthropocene. Ecol. Lett. 22, 847–854 (2019).
Gregory, R. & van Strien, A. Wild bird indicators: using composite population trends of birds as measures of environmental health. Ornithol. Sci. 9, 3–22 (2010).
Newbold, T. et al. Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity. Nature 520, 45–50 (2015).
Pescott, O. L. et al. Air pollution and its effects on lichens, bryophytes, and lichen-feeding Lepidoptera: review and evidence from biological records. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 115, 611–635 (2015).
Saal, D. S. & Parker, D. The impact of privatization and regulation on the water and sewerage industry in England and Wales: a translog cost function model. Manage. Decis. Econ. 21, 253–268 (2000).
Vaughan, I. P. & Ormerod, S. J. Large-scale, long-term trends in British river macroinvertebrates. Glob. Change Biol. 18, 2184–2194 (2012).
Vaughan, I. P. & Gotelli, N. J. Water quality improvements offset the climatic debt for stream macroinvertebrates over twenty years. Nat. Commun. 10, 1956 (2019).
Langford, T. E. L., Shaw, P. J., Ferguson, A. J. D. & Howard, S. R. Long-term recovery of macroinvertebrate biota in grossly polluted streams: re-colonisation as a constraint to ecological quality. Ecol. Indic. 9, 1064–1077 (2009).
Balmford, A. & Knowlton, N. Why Earth Optimism? Science 356, 225 (2017).
Antrop, M. Why landscapes of the past are important for the future. Landsc. Urban Plan. 70, 21–34 (2005).
Robinson, R. A. & Sutherland, W. J. Post-war changes in arable farming and biodiversity in Great Britain. J. Appl. Ecol. 39, 157–176 (2002).
Mihoub, J. B. et al. Setting temporal baselines for biodiversity: the limits of available monitoring data for capturing the full impact of anthropogenic pressures. Sci. Rep. 7, 41591 (2017).
Soga, M. & Gaston, K. J. Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications. Front. Ecol. Environ. 16, 222–230 (2018).
Thomas, C. D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (Hachette UK, 2017).
Dornelas, M. et al. Assemblage time series reveal biodiversity change but not systematic loss. Science 344, 296–299 (2014).
Lister, B. C. & Garcia, A. Climate-driven declines in arthropod abundance restructure a rainforest food web. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 201722477 (2018).
Mace, G. M., Collen, B., Fuller, R. A. & Boakes, E. H. Population and geographic range dynamics: implications for conservation planning. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 365, 3743–3751 (2010).
Gaston, K. J. & Fuller, R. A. The sizes of species’ geographic ranges. J. Appl. Ecol. 46, 1–9 (2009).
Seibold, S. et al. Arthropod decline in grasslands and forests is associated with landscape-level drivers. Nature 574, 671–674 (2019).
Bart, J. & Klosiewski, S. P. Use of presence-absence to measure changes in avian density. J. Wildl. Manage. 53, 847–852 (1989).
Webb, T. J., Freckleton, R. P. & Gaston, K. J. Characterizing abundance–occupancy relationships: there is no artefact. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 21, 952–957 (2012).
Buckley, H. L. & Freckleton, R. P. Understanding the role of species dynamics in abundance–occupancy relationships. J. Ecol. 98, 645–658 (2010).
van Strien, A. J., van Swaay, C. A. M., van Strien-van Liempt, W. T. F. H., Poot, M. J. M. & WallisDeVries, M. F. Over a century of data reveal more than 80% decline in butterflies in the Netherlands. Biol. Conserv. 234, 116–122 (2019).
Jetz, W. et al. Essential biodiversity variables for mapping and monitoring species populations. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 3, 539–551 (2019).
Schmeller, D. S. et al. An operational definition of essential biodiversity variables. Biodivers. Conserv. 26, 2967–2972 (2017).
McGill, B. J. & Dornelas, M. & Gotelli, N. J. & Magurran, A. E. Fifteen forms of biodiversity trend in the Anthropocene. Trends Ecol. Evol. 30, 104–113 (2014).
Buckland, S. T., Magurran, A. E., Green, R. E. & Fewster, R. M. Monitoring change in biodiversity through composite indices. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 360, 243–254 (2005).
Faraway, J. J. Linear Models with R (Chapman & Hall, CRC, 2009).
Outhwaite, C. L. et al. Annual estimates of occupancy for bryophytes, lichens and invertebrates in the UK, 1970–2015. Sci. Data 6, 259 (2019).
Gelman, A. et al. Bayesian Data Analysis (CRC, 2014).
We thank the following recording schemes and societies for contributing data to the dataset underlying this study and for their input in interpreting group-level change: the Aquatic Heteroptera Recording Scheme; the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society; the British Arachnological Society, Spider Recording Scheme; the British Bryological Society; the British Dragonfly Society: Dragonfly Recording Network; the British Lichen Society; the British Myriapod and Isopod Group: Centipede Recording Scheme; the British Myriapod and Isopod Group: Millipede Recording Scheme; the Chrysomelidae Recording Scheme; the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland; the Dipterists Forum: Cranefly Recording Scheme; the Dipterists Forum: Empididae, Hybotidae and Dolichopodidae Recording Scheme; the Dipterists Forum: Fungus Gnat Recording Scheme; the Dipterists Forum: Hoverfly Recording Scheme; the Gelechiid Recording Scheme; the Grasshoppers and Related Insects Recording Scheme; the Ground Beetle Recording Scheme; the Lacewings and Allies Recording Scheme; the National Moth Recording Scheme; the Riverfly Recording Schemes: Ephemeroptera; the Riverfly Recording Schemes: Plecoptera; the Riverfly Recording Schemes: Trichoptera; the Soldier Beetles, Jewel Beetles and Glow-worms Recording Scheme; the Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme; the Staphylinidae Recording Scheme; the Terrestrial Heteroptera Recording Scheme—Plant bugs and allied species; the Terrestrial Heteroptera Recording Scheme—Shield bugs and allied species; the UK Ladybird Survey; and the Weevil and Bark Beetle Recording Scheme. We thank G. Mace, whose advice and comments on previous versions of this manuscript greatly improved the study. We thank T. August, G. Powney, J. Silvertown and R. Pearson for advice and comments on the draft manuscripts. We also thank J. Cranston for supplying a list of recent colonist species in the United Kingdom. This work was funded by NERC, award number NE/L008823/1, and was supported by NERC, award number NE/R016429/1, as part of the UK-SCAPE programme delivering National Capability.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended Data Fig. 1 Figure 1 of the main text, repeated using different thresholds for the number of records that contribute to a species’ estimate.
Five thresholds were tested: a minimum of 50 records, 75, 100, 150 and 200 records. Each facet presents composite trends in average occupancy of four groups of species. Values are scaled to 100 in 1970. Coloured lines show the average response as the geometric mean occupancy and the shaded area represents the 95% credible intervals of the posterior distribution of the geometric mean.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Figure 1 of the main text, repeated 12 times whist randomising the species within each group.
The colours and number of species within each group are maintained as in Fig. 1 of the main text, however the species have been randomly reassigned across the groups. Red = freshwater (n = 318), green = insects (n = 3089), blue = invertebrates (n = 536) and purple = bryophytes & lichens (n = 1269). Values are scaled to 100 in 1970. Coloured lines show the average response as the geometric mean occupancy and the shaded area represents the 95% credible intervals of the posterior distribution of the geometric mean.
Extended Data Fig. 3 Mean across years of the species’ mean proportion of sites with records for each of 26 taxonomic groups.
The black line shows the 1:1 relationship, error bars delimit the 95% credible intervals.
Extended Data Fig. 4 Variance across years in the species’ mean proportion of sites with records for each of 26 taxonomic groups.
The black line shows the 1:1 relationship, error bars delimit the 95% credible intervals.
About this article
Cite this article
Outhwaite, C.L., Gregory, R.D., Chandler, R.E. et al. Complex long-term biodiversity change among invertebrates, bryophytes and lichens. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 384–392 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1111-z
Nature Ecology & Evolution (2021)
Applications of environmental DNA (eDNA) in ecology and conservation: opportunities, challenges and prospects
Biodiversity and Conservation (2020)
Do surveys of adult dragonflies and damselflies yield repeatable data? Variation in monthly counts of abundance and species richness
Journal of Insect Conservation (2020)