1. Impacts of global change on the distribution, abundance, and phenology of species have been widely documented. In particular, recent climate change has led to widespread changes in animal and plant seasonality, leading to debate about its potential to cause phenological mismatches among interacting taxa.
2. In mountainous regions, populations of many species show pronounced phenological gradients over short geographic distances, presenting the opportunity to test for effects of climate on phenology, independent of variation in confounding factors such as photoperiod.
3. Here we show for 32 butterfly species sampled for five years over a 1700 m gradient (560–2260 m) in a Mediterranean mountain range that, on average, annual flight period is delayed with elevation by 15–22 days per kilometre. Species mainly occurring at low elevations in the region, and to some extent those flying earlier in the year, showed phenological delays of 23–36 days per kilometre, whereas the flight periods of species that occupy high elevations, or fly in late summer, were consistently more synchronised over the elevation gradient.
4. Elevational patterns in phenology appear to reflect a narrowing phenological window of opportunity for larval and adult butterfly activity of high elevation and late-flying species.
5. Here, we speculate as to the causes of these patterns, and the consequences for our ability to predict species responses to climate change. Our results raise questions about the use of space–time substitutions in predicting phenological responses to climate change, since traits relating to flight period and environmental associations may influence the capacity of species to adapt to changing climates.