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Keywords:

  • butterfly;
  • climate-change;
  • extinctions;
  • habitat loss;
  • low-latitude;
  • range boundary

Abstract

Polewards expansions of species' distributions have been attributed to climate warming, but evidence for climate-driven local extinctions at warm (low latitude/elevation) boundaries is equivocal. We surveyed the four species of butterflies that reach their southern limits in Britain. We visited 421 sites where the species had been recorded previously to determine whether recent extinctions were primarily due to climate or habitat changes. Coenonympha tullia had become extinct at 52% of study sites and all losses were associated with habitat degradation. Aricia artaxerxes was extinct from 50% of sites, with approximately one-third to half of extinctions associated with climate-related factors and the remainder with habitat loss. For Erebia aethiops (extinct from 24% of sites), approximately a quarter of the extinctions were associated with habitat and three-quarters with climate. For Erebia epiphron, extinctions (37% of sites) were attributed mainly to climate with almost no habitat effects. For the three species affected by climate, range boundaries retracted 70–100 km northwards (A. artaxerxes, E. aethiops) and 130–150 m uphill (E. epiphron) in the sample of sites analysed. These shifts are consistent with estimated latitudinal and elevational temperature shifts of 88 km northwards and 98 m uphill over the 19-year study period. These results suggest that the southern/warm range margins of some species are as sensitive to climate change as are northern/cool margins. Our data indicate that climate warming has been of comparable importance to habitat loss in driving local extinctions of northern species over the past few decades; future climate warming is likely to jeopardize the long-term survival of many northern and mountain species.