Butterflies at massive risk from climate change

Small Tort (Andrew Lawson)

The latest report from the IPCC concludes that we are facing a big change in world’s climate that will have a huge impact on humans and wildlife alike. 

Data gathered by Butterfly Conservation shows that butterflies are already being strongly affected by climate change. Over one-quarter of UK species are spreading north, with butterflies like the Comma moving at 10km per year. 

This is part of a major shift of butterfly populations across Europe that has been going on for at least 20 years. Species have been spreading northwards across Europe and several reports have shown that colonies have shifted uphill. 

The problem is that even this pace of change is not keeping up with the warming climate, so butterflies are lagging behind. Many species are becoming threatened as they cannot move to keep pace with climate change now that their habitats are so small and fragmented. 

A Climatic Risk Atlas of European butterflies shows that under the extreme scenario of a 4C rise, which is now looking more likely, one quarter of Europe’s butterflies will lose 95% of their current range, leading to a potentially huge spate of extinctions.

The IPCC and recent Met Office reports conclude that there will be more extreme weather events in the future, with heavy rains and droughts becoming more frequent. This could have a devastating effect on butterflies and local extinction events will become more frequent. 

Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive with Butterfly Conservation said: “Climate change will add to the already extreme problems facing butterflies and other insects.  Populations are already dwindling rapidly due to habitat loss, which makes them even more vulnerable to a changing climate. We can expect an increasing number of local extinctions, from which our specialist species will never recover. But, the more generalist species, whose habitats are more widespread, may well benefit and spread into new areas.”  

The threat from climate change gives fresh urgency to Butterfly Conservation’s strategy of conserving species at a landscape scale, making existing habitats bigger, better managed and better connected. A landmark report published in 2012 shows that this approach is beginning to reverse the decline of several threatened species. 

Dr Warren added: “We need to make populations far more resilient and better able to respond to climate change. That can only be done by conserving species at a landscape scale. Butterflies are useful barometers of how other wildlife might be affected, so these solutions will undoubtedly benefit a wide range of other wildlife groups.”