Role of larval host plants in the climate-driven range expansion of the butterfly Polygonia c-album


and present address: Brigitte Braschler, Biodiversity and Macroecology Group, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK. E-mail:


  • 1Some species have expanded their ranges during recent climate warming and the availability of breeding habitat and species’ dispersal ability are two important factors determining expansions. The exploitation of a wide range of larval host plants should increase an herbivorous insect species’ ability to track climate by increasing habitat availability. Therefore we investigated whether the performance of a species on different host plants changed towards its range boundary, and under warmer temperatures.
  • 2We studied the polyphagous butterfly Polygonia c-album, which is currently expanding its range in Britain and apparently has altered its host plant preference from Humulus lupulus to include other hosts (particularly Ulmus glabra and Urtica dioica). We investigated insect performance (development time, larval growth rate, adult size, survival) and adult flight morphology on these host plants under four rearing temperatures (18–28·5 °C) in populations from core and range margin sites.
  • 3In general, differences between core and margin populations were small compared with effects of rearing temperature and host plant. In terms of insect performance, host plants were generally ranked U. glabra  U. dioica > H. lupulus at all temperatures. Adult P. c-album can either enter diapause or develop directly and higher temperatures resulted in more directly developing adults, but lower survival rates (particularly on the original host H. lupulus) and smaller adult size.
  • 4Adult flight morphology of wild-caught individuals from range margin populations appeared to be related to increased dispersal potential relative to core populations. However, there was no difference in laboratory reared individuals, and conflicting results were obtained for different measures of flight morphology in relation to larval host plant and temperature effects, making conclusions about dispersal potential difficult.
  • 5Current range expansion of P. c-album is associated with the exploitation of more widespread host plants on which performance is improved. This study demonstrates how polyphagy may enhance the ability of species to track climate change. Our findings suggest that observed differences in climate-driven range shifts of generalist vs. specialist species may increase in the future and are likely to lead to greatly altered community composition.