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An indicator highlights seasonal variation in the response of Lepidoptera communities to warming

This paper, published in a Special Issue of the journal Ecological Indicators to mark 20 years of data collection at ECN terrestrial sites, used both ECN and other data to develop a new climate change indicator for butterflies and moths.

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Martay, B., Monteith, DT., Brewer, MJ., Brereton, T., Shortall, CR. and Pearce-Higgins, JW. (2016). An indicator highlights seasonal variation in the response of Lepidoptera communities to warming. Ecological Indicators68, 126-133.



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The impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems are increasingly evident. While these tend to be clearest with respect to changes in phenology and distribution ranges, there are also important consequences for population sizes and community structure. There is an urgent need to develop ecological indicators that can be used to detect climate-driven changes in ecological communities, and identify how those impacts may vary spatially. Here we describe the development of a new community-based seasonal climate change indicator that uses national population and weather indices. We test this indicator using Lepidopteran and co-located weather data collected across a range of UK Environmental Change Network (ECN) sites. We compare our butterfly indicator with estimates derived from an alternative, previously published metric, the Community Temperature Index (CTI).

First, we quantified the effect of temperature on population growth rates of moths and butterflies (Species Temperature Response, STR) by modelling annual variation in national population indices as a function of nationally averaged seasonal variation in temperature, using species and weather data independent of the ECN data. Then, we calculated average STRs for annually summarised species data from each ECN site, weighted by species’ abundance, to produce the Community Temperature Response (CTR). Finally, we tested the extent to which CTR correlated with spatial variation in temperature between sites and the extent to which temporal variation in CTR tracked both annual and seasonal warming trends.

Mean site CTR was positively correlated with mean site temperature for moths but not butterflies. However, spatial variation in moth communities was well explained by mean site summer temperature and butterfly communities by winter temperature, respectively accounting for 74% and 63% of variation. Temporal variation in moth and butterfly CTR within sites did not vary with the mean annual temperature but responded to variation in the mean temperature of specific seasons. There were positive correlations between moth seasonal CTRs and seasonal temperatures in winter, spring and summer; and butterfly seasonal CTRs and seasonal temperatures in winter and summer. Butterfly CTR and CTI both correlated spatially and temporally with winter temperature.

Our results highlight the need for seasonality to be considered when examining the impact of climate change on communities. Seasonal CTRs may be used to track the impact of changing temperatures on biodiversity and help identify potential mechanisms by which climate change is affecting communities. In the case of Lepidoptera, our results suggest that future warming may reassemble Lepidoptera communities.