Butterflies and climate change

Peacock (Inachis io) Scarborough (4 May 18 )

We have heard a great deal about climate change in the last year, with protests by Extinction Rebellion activists in London and the incredible teenager, Greta Thunberg reading the riot act to delegates at the UN, condemming world leaders for failing to act on global warming. And last, but not least, the terrible bush fires in Australia, focussing everyones mind on individual and country-scale contributions to global warming.

Personally, I have always thought that most of us are complicit, in terms of not doing enough to reduce our carbon footprint. Be it buying a big, gas-guzzling car, travelling to exotic locations, or even using luxury products full of palm oil (that lovely texture of good shampoos!), we are all in this together. But what of butterflies? They are continuing to live the lives they have always lived; they have no choice but to adapt to the changes we are wreaking on the planet: reduced or lost habitats; increased temperatures and rising CO2 levels. How will they cope?

Small toitoishell (Aglais urticae) basking (4 May 18) Scarborough

The first thing to know is that butterflies have been flying about in this world for a VERY long time; well before sentient apes like us evolved to appreciate their functional beauty. The Lepidoptera, moths and butterflies, probably first appeared in the  Late Triassic, about 212 million years ago. Day-flying Lepidoptera, i.e. butterflies, appeared later on, probably in the Early Cretaceous period (c. 100-110 mya), but still a long time ago! However, they only really got going and expanded, along with flowering plants, in the Oligocene ( 34–23 Myr ago). So, it is fair to say that they have seen a lot of changes!

Clouded yellow (Colias croceus) Galicia, Spain

Butterflies are probably one of the best studied and monitored of all insects, and it has been said that they are only group for which accurate measures of climate change can be made; because of their relatively short life cycles and sometimes, rather localised distributions, they are particularly sensitive to habitats changes. Perhaps because of this, their responses to climate warming can be seen as an early warning that climate change will affect other creatures? For example, migrant species, like the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) will presumably be able to overwinter in the UK much more frequently and successfully than before?

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta). Galicia, Spain

Painted Ladies (Cynthia cardui) should become much more common as average temperatures increase.

The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) on thistles Galicia, Spain (17 June 18)

Increased temperatures generally have a positive effect on butterfly populations; as they do on many insects, so most butterfly species might be predicted to increase in diversity, range and abundance under a warmer climate, although some may decline. Unfortunately, many of the species which we might have expected to benefit from warming climate, may be threatened for other reasons, e.g. due to their inability to move north fast enough, and their specialization in terms of hosts and habitats. In other words, there are opposing forces at work, and the negative responses to habitat loss may outweigh the positive responses to climate warming. The effect of these dual forces, of habitat modification and climate change, especially loss of habitat, may cause specialist species to decline, leaving biological communities with reduced diversity (i.e. loss of rare species) and largely dominated by mobile and widespread habitat generalists, like the Comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, for example. Not that I have anything against generalists! I am one myself!

Comma (Polygonia c-album) male resting on a leaf. Beds, UK.

We should expect to see many butterflies species emerging earlier in the spring, a phenomenon which is already very apparent. For example, Purple emperors (Apatura iris) are emerging much earlier than a few decades ago. Warming temperatures are advancing butterfly appearances in spring by two or three weeks on average, and presumably this trend will continue? For example,  silver-spotted skippers emerging earlier, getting larger and expanding their distributions northwards as spring temperatures increase.

A male Purple Emperor (Apatura iris). Av I, Rosenzweig, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4240014

The average Spring appearance of the Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines), has also shifted considerably earlier than say, in the 1970s. Things are changing fast!

Orange tip butterflies (Antocharis cardamines) mating. By hamon jp – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18855497

Unfortunately, despite these individual gains, only a minority of UK butterflies have increased their distributions since the 1970s, probably as a response to climate change. According to Butterfly Conservation, the responses of butterflies to the climate changes, at least what we have seen so far, are much more variable than previously realised, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events – heavy rain in particular I would judge – may have serious implications for butterfly populations. I remain optimistic though. Butterflies have seen the coming and going of the ice sheets, and unlike the dinosaurs, they even survived the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous!  A probable asteroid impact that occurred 65.5 mya. Admittedly 60% of butterfly species died out as a result of that catastrophe, but it is a good track record! I’d put my money on them lasting longer than us!

The black-veined butterfly, Aporia crataegi L., has shifted uphill in the mountains of central Spain. By Hectonichus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56238615

Many species, butterflies included, are moving north, shifting their breeding distributions if they can, but it may take decades or even centuries for species to reach an equilibrium which reflects the altered climate, assuming it ever remains sufficiently static for the slowly migrating species to catch up. Since Man now occupies most of the planet, if we want to facilitate this process, we need to create habitats, green bridges or refuges, to help them cope with climate change. Their fate is in our hands. Climate change will have a massive impact on butterflies and ourselves; but if we provide them with what they need – a place to live, survive and thrive – then I think they will (mostly) be OK. Perhaps I am being too optimistic; but we must have hope. There will be a few specialists though, like northern range species, or mountain species, whose habitats will just disappear. Like polar bears, species like the Arctic fritillary (below) will have nowhere to go; the climate which they evolved in will just have gone. They just won’t be able to make the leap to being a hot-house species. Our own species, like the Scotch Argus and Northern Brown Argus (Aricia artaxerxes) will also be severely challenged.

Arctic fritillary (Boloria chariclea). By Walter Siegmund (talk) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11423246

For readers wanting to pursue this subject further, I thoroughly recommend this book (below) by Roger Dennis.

Dennis, R. L. (1993). Butterflies and climate change. Manchester University Press.


DELL, D., SPARKS, T. H. & DENNIS, R. L.H. (2005). Climate change and the effect of increasing spring temperatures on emergence dates of the butterfly Apatura iris (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae).  European Journal of Entomology 102, 161–167.

Dennis, R. L. (1993). Butterflies and climate change. Manchester University Press.

Heikkinen, R. K., Luoto, M., Leikola, N., Pöyry, J., Settele, J., Kudrna, O., … & Thuiller, W. (2010). Assessing the vulnerability of European butterflies to climate change using multiple criteria. Biodiversity and conservation19(3), 695-723.

MENÉNDEZ, R., GONZÁLEZ-MEGÍAS, A., COLLINGHAM, Y., FOX, R., ROY, D. B., OHLEMÜLLER, R., & THOMAS, C. D. (2007).  Direct and indirect effects of climate and habitat factors on butterfly diversity. Ecology 88, 605-611.

MERRILL, R. M., GUTIÉRREZ, D., LEWIS, O. T., GUTIÉRREZ, J., DÍEZ, S. B. & WILSON, R. J. (2008). Combined effects of climate and biotic interactions on the elevational range of a phytophagous insect. Journal of  Animal Ecology 77, 145-55.

Pelini, S. L., Dzurisin, J. D., Prior, K. M., Williams, C. M., Marsico, T. D., Sinclair, B. J., & Hellmann, J. J. (2009). Translocation experiments with butterflies reveal limits to enhancement of poleward populations under climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(27), 11160-11165.

POLLARD, E. (1988).  Temperature, rainfall and butterfly numbers.  Journal of Applied Ecology 25, 819-828.

POLLARD, E., MOSS, D. & YATES, T. J. (1995).  Population trends of common British butterflies at monitored sites.  Journal of applied Ecology 32, 9-16.

ROY, D. B., ROTHERY, P., MOSS, D., POLLARD, E. & THOMAS, J. A. (2001).  Butterfly numbers and weather: predicting historical trends in abundance and the future effects of climate change.  Journal of Applied Ecology 25, 819-828.

SETTELE, J., KUDRNA, O., HARPKE, A., KÜHN, I., VAN SWAAY, C., VEROVNIK, R., WARREN, M., WIEMERS, M., HANSPACH, J., HICKLER, T., KÜHN, E., VAN HALDER, I., VELING, K., VLIEGENTHART, A., WYNHOFF  I. & SCHWEIGER, O. (2008).  Climatic Risk Atlas of European ButterfliesBiorisk 1 (Special Issue) Pensoft Publishers, Geo Milev Str. 13a, Sofia 1111, Bulgaria.

SPARKS, T. H., DENNIS, R. L. H., CROXTON, P. J. & CADE, M. (2007).  Increased migration of Lepidoptera linked to climate change. European Journal of Entomology 104, 139–143.

THOMAS, J. A. (2005). Monitoring change in the abundance and distribution of insects using butterflies and other indicator groups.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B – Biological Sciences 360, 339–357.

Vickery, M. (2008). Butterflies as indicators of climate change. Science progress91(2), 193-201.

WARREN, M.S. HILL, J.K., THOMAS, J.A., ASHER, J., FOX, R., HUNTLEY, B., ROY, D.B., TELFER, M.G., JEFFCOATE, S., HARDING, P., JEFFCOATE, G., WILLIS, S.G., GREATOREX-DAVIES, J.N., MOSS, D., & THOMAS, C.D. (2001). Rapid responses of British butterflies to opposing forces of climate and habitat change. Nature 414, 65–69.

WESTWOOD, A. R. & BLAIR, D. (2010).  Effect of regional climate warming on the phenology of butterflies in boreal forests in Manitoba, Canada.  Environmental Entomology 39, 1122-1133.


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