Posted by: oikosasa | December 15, 2014

Butterfly resilience to climate warming

How species may cope with global warming is studied in the Early View paper “Geographic mosaics of phenology, host preference, adult size and microhabitat choice predict butterfly resilience to climate warming” by Nichole L. Bennett and coworkers. Below is their summary of the study:

Scientists investigating biological response to climate change have traditionally focused on how species move in space or in time to track the “climate envelope” (range of climatic conditions within which a species can survive). However, many species are able to buffer the effects of overall climate through habitat use. For example, the black-veined white butterfly, Aporia crataegi, achieves the same egg temperatures at both low and high elevations in Spain by laying eggs on the cool north-facing sides of host plant bushes at low elevation and on the warm south-facing side at higher altitudes1. Our study organism, Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, Euphydryas editha is known to be climate-sensitive and associates with a variety of host plants. It also exhibits between-population variation in peak flight time, so this study system provides an excellent system to investigate the options available to a species with diverse habitat use and diverse seasonality in a warming world.

Suitable egg-laying site choice is critical to egg and caterpillar survival. Newly-hatched larvae do not travel far from the site where eggs were laid and normally begin feeding on the plant chosen by their mother or a nearby plant. Edith’s checkerspot feeds on plants in the families Plantaginaceae (Collinsia, Plantago, Penstemon) and Orobanchaceae (Pedicularis, Castilleja). Butterflies lay their eggs on their principal host plant in a complex spatial mosaic2,3. Populations that feed only on Pedicularis and populations that feed only on Collinsia differ in a suite of adaptations2,4,5. For instance, butterflies that are adapted to Pedicularis lay their eggs low on the plant while butterflies adapted to Collinsia lay their eggs higher up on the plant. We became interested in the consequences of host plant adaptation, especially egg-laying height, for the thermal environment of the eggs and newly-hatched larvae.

Butterflies adapted to Pedicularis lay their eggs low.
Butterflies adapted to Collinsia lay their eggs high.

To investigate whether egg-laying height influenced egg thermal environment, we measured heights of egg clutches, egg clutch temperature, and ambient temperature at eight field sites. No matter what plant was used, eggspace temperatures decreased with increasing egg height on plant, with hotter temperatures near the ground. To determine how much “wiggle room” these butterflies have for future warming, we asked if eggs could be laid at cooler microsites (i.e. higher) on the same plants. Eggs at seven of the sites were laid as low as possible, and there was only one population where the eggs were laid as high as possible on the plant. So, Edith’s checkerspot butterfly seems to retain options for buffering future warming with regard to host plant microclimate.

Populations of the butterfly also vary drastically in timing of peak flight season, and we were interested in the thermal consequences of this variation. Using a combination of observations and museum records6, we found that peak flight season varies between March and July. From the PRISM climate mapping system, we retrieved the mean daily maximum temperatures for each site (averaged over 1970-2000 in a 800m2 grid)7. We determined a measure of “phenological mitigation” by subtracting July temperatures from temperature during peak flight season. This gave us an idea of whether or not butterflies are flying earlier to avoid hotter temperatures. The positive association between July temperature and “phenological mitigation” suggests that butterflies are buffering overall hot climates by flying earlier during cooler months. We also asked if cooler, earlier flight times are available to the butterflies to buffer future warming. In twelve of fifteen sites, caterpillars started growing as early in the year as it was possible for them to feed. At these sites, any advance in timing would happen at the expense of adult size and the amount of offspring produced. At the three remaining sites, this sort of shift was possible without shortening time for growoth.

Despite the known climate sensitivity of Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, we expect that this species’ potential for rapid evolution8 and variation in habitat use2 will enable it to persist across most of its range as climate warms. However, particular subpopulations may prove extremely vulnerable. A prime example is the federally endangered Bay Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha bayensis. Although it is located near the center of the species’ latitudinal range, the Bay Checkerspot operates close to the limits of its ecological tolerance9.

We wish to thank Jacob Johansson, Niclas Jonzén and Jan-Åke Nilsson for inviting us to contribute with our paper to the special issue about “Phenological change and ecological interactions.”


1.  Merrill, R. M. et al. J. Anim. Behav. 77, 145 (2008).

2.  Singer, M. C., McBride, C. S. Evolution. 64, 921 (2010).

3.  Mikheyev, A. S., et al. Mol. Ecol. 22,4753 (2013).

4.  Parmesan, C., Singer, M.C., Harris I. Anim. Behav. 50,161 (1995).

5.  Parmesan, C. J. Insect Behav. 4, 417 (1991).

6. Parmesan, C. Nature. 382, 765 (1996).

7.  PRISM Climate Group. Oregon State University (2004).;

8.  Singer, M.C., Parmesan, C. Nature. 361, 251 (1993).

9  Singer, M. C., Parmesan, C. Phil. T. Roy. Soc. B. 12, 3161 (2010)

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