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Once-Rare Butterfly Species Now Thrives, Thanks to Climate Change

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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brown-argus-butterflyThe once rare brown argus butterfly is on the move, expanding its range and numbers in the U.K.—and it’s all thanks to climate change.

Thus far, the world’s climate has warmed roughly 0.8 degree Celsius over the course of the last century or so, thanks to a rise in greenhouse gas concentrations now approaching 400 parts-per-million. With that amount of warming, biologists expect some species ranges to expand and others to contract but, thus far, many wily animals and plants have been confounding scientists’ expectations. In some cases, species that favor a warmer climate have actually retreated (think: lizards or amphibians). Or others have expanded even faster than the climate has warmed (think: tree species moving up a mountain slope).

Obviously climate change isn’t the only factor in play. Habitat loss and disease seem to be dooming many varieties of amphibian while plants may be benefiting from human help (carried along on our own fossil fueled travels by car or plane).

But for the brown argus butterfly with its trademark orange and white spots near its wingtips, climate seems to play a key role. It has spread northwards nearly 80 kilometers in just the last two decades, according to the U.K. Butterfly Monitoring Scheme. Warm summers have allowed the butterfly to begin using a new type of plants—such as the dove’s foot cranesbill—as a host in the U.K., the way it does in continental Europe. In prior decades, the butterfly had restricted itself to the rockrose.

That appears to be a result of the cooler climate back then. The long-lived and relatively sprawling rockrose plant allows for more stable populations of the butterfly when times are tough because of cool weather. It hosts the caterpillars on the underside of leaves on south-facing (and therefore sun-warmed) hillsides. But when generally balmy summers abound, as recently, the annual cranesbill can help the brown argus butterfly expand its range, according to new research to be published in Science on May 25.

Of course, this expansion in the north is counterbalanced by a loss of habitat further south, where conditions are rapidly becoming too hot for the butterfly. “The picture across its whole distributional range in Europe looks somewhat different,” notes ecologist Oliver Schweiger of the Heimholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Halle, Germany, who was not involved in the research. His modeling work suggests that, even assuming the butterfly can fly past any natural features that might otherwise restrict range expansion, “large range retractions in the South cannot be counterbalanced by the expansions in the North.” And even flying animals, like butterflies and birds, can’t seem to keep pace with the poleward march of temperature bands, according to Schweiger’s work.

Nevertheless, this kind of adaptation to a changing climate may offer hope for other species. “Not all species must necessarily suffer from climate change,” Schweiger adds. “Showing that an extension of the utilizable host plants is possible and can help to cope with the consequences of climate change can be considered as good news.” In other words, don’t underestimate a species’ ability to adapt and make the best of it.

Image: Courtesy of Louise Mair

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. geojellyroll 6:05 pm 05/24/2012

    Again, so many generalities and assumptions in this article to make it meaningless.

    My cat just sneezed…must be due to cliomaste change.

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  2. 2. priddseren 11:49 pm 05/24/2012

    I am impressed SA even published this one. Maybe they tossed this in to make it seem like the editors are not biased to the warmist dogma.

    Its incredible the ideas they have here, a species coming back from the brink because of warming. My favorite, there is more than climate change at play, wow, I thought warmist dogma was specific on the “fact” that damage is the only outcome and human created climate change, the only cause. Then the best of all, some wily plants and animals are confounding scientists expectations. Yeah, nice to point out the problem SA. Perhaps scientists need to realize they dont know everything and maybe their expectations are wrong, not the animals confounding you. Though, I suppose a warmists is incapable of considering their predictions could be wrong.

    They still had to toss in the comment about losing habitat in the south, even though there is no mention of where this is happening or what negative effect is there.

    Still, the entire article has nothing in it of use. The cat that just sneezed just set off a string of 2.1 earthquakes in my town, thanks global warming.

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  3. 3. elderlybloke 12:25 am 05/25/2012

    priddseren ,
    I noted the reference to the south negating the good news to the north.
    I suppose I was expecting too much when it seemed that there was good news about something due to this global warming .

    Back to being depressed again.

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  4. 4. way2ec 1:23 am 05/25/2012

    I’m glad the author just simply wrote the words “thanks to climate change” and didn’t hedge with something like “alleged or suspected global warming”. Glad he posted that we are soon to hit 400 ppm CO2, last I had it pegged at 380. My how time flies, or fossil fuels burn. Weird way to track how old you are, by remembering 4, 5, 6, now 7 billion people. Interesting to note how the brown argus butterfly is responding. Ecology, the interconnectedness of it all. Evolution, changes over time. And we are all witness to it.

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  5. 5. ceriops 5:43 am 05/25/2012

    well we may be witness to it but the key is that we are PART of it, not just witness. And of course animals and plants will react in ways that surprise us, we are not yet aware of everything..

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  6. 6. singing flea 6:17 am 05/25/2012

    Let’s see now, there is 500 endangered species worldwide and 1 success story is now cause to celebrate. Yep, that’s par for the course of human empathy.

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  7. 7. Carlyle 9:33 am 05/25/2012

    Numerous species previously thought extinct have been turning up in recent years. Reincarnation you might say is exceeding extinctions.
    As for endangered species, I understand polar bears are on that list even though their numbers are actually expanding. The same applies to other species on the list. Alarmism, crying wolf, is devaluing genuine cases of concern & turning people away from causes that do deserve attention.
    As for the butterflies, when seasons turn cold again, they will move south again. Nothing is static, ever.

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  8. 8. moss boss 10:02 am 05/25/2012


    Zip it. Once again, as usual, you are writing out of your ass. Regarding extinction rates, we are currently experiencing a trend that is on par with other “mass extinction” periods that the planet has seen only five times in the past.

    Are you mentally challenged?

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  9. 9. Dredd 5:32 pm 05/25/2012

    We are in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, caused by Ecocidal tendencies.

    This article could be read to be like talking about a back eddy during the Japanese Tsunami.

    The big picture needs to be addressed often.

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  10. 10. Carlyle 5:44 pm 05/25/2012

    Name the extinctions. While you are at it Google, back from extinction, once thought extinct & similar searches. Claims re mass extinctions do not match the facts.

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  11. 11. moss boss 9:52 pm 05/26/2012


    By responding to your rediculous comment regarding extinctions, I have demeaned us both. I have presented you with a link that refutes your naive and asshole-like post; a link that represents hundreds of others that have come to the same conclusion.

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  12. 12. Carlyle 3:02 am 05/27/2012

    Your site publishes unsubstantiated garbage. Sure there have been many extinctions since mankind inhabited new habitats but in developed countries the rate has deminished substantially. As for the rate of continuing extinction, name the species that went extinct on any particular day, your site claims an extinction every twenty minutes. The claim is peer reviewed. By the researchers, father & son.

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  13. 13. way2ec 1:11 am 05/28/2012

    Moss boss, take a deep breath, exhale. When they have their heads so far up inside that they can’t see the light of day, calling them body orifices is like feeding the trolls. And naive? Almost never. More like briar rabbits leaving tar babies around, you touch one of them and get stuck. Whether they laugh about it goes back to whether they can see the light of day. Thanks for posting your reference, shows respect. I don’t know if this will help, but when I step back and look at their “denial systems”, I almost always find myself contemplating the responses to Copernicus and Galileo Galilei. Copernicus’ student was put to death and Galileo was forced to “recant” and was put under house arrest. Tough times to be a scientist. But that the Church couldn’t and wouldn’t “apologize” for more than 300 years? And even then it hedged with something along the lines of given the “conditions of the times”. Yeah right, the “Enlightenment”. Then, like now, the naysayers don’t HAVE to accept what the majority of scientists and educated laymen already KNOW. And I don’t know if I should use the word “lucky” but at least we don’t have to defend what is already known from the naysayers. Time is so very much on the side of knowledge, their “arguments” and “rebuttals” become ever more irrelevant. I’m glad that for the moment, a once rare butterfly now thrives but even as it moves north, its southern range is no longer hospitable. Climate change will always favor some species as others go extinct. More worrisome is the threat of crashes in whole ecologies that took millions of years to evolve and will need millions to “recover”, not that they ever recover, they just evolve. And no, WE didn’t evolve from monkeys, but way too many of our primate cousins are at risk from more than “just” man-made extremely rapid climate change. Enough ramblings, can’t wait to see where the next pot shots come from.

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  14. 14. way2ec 3:03 am 05/28/2012

    Carlyle, rather than play a numbers game… no, not every 20 minutes… one an hour, or name that extinction event, day and year, what do YOU think regarding extinction rates? I don’t need exact numbers, as I agree, they can only be estimates. We don’t know how many species there are, new ones are being discovered “every day”… “a few” others are “rediscovered” after having been thought extinct. So where do you stand? “Lots and lots” of species are currently endangered? Hundreds? Thousands? More now than “ever before”? Do you think that the rate of extinction is increasing? Fast, really fast, only a little, hardly at all? My fear? That we are in danger of losing species before we have even identified them. That through a variety of man-made changes in ecosystems in all parts of the world, we have already doomed “too many”. The losses we are currently counting and the increasing losses that are predicted are NOT acceptable “costs of doing business as usual”. More fears? That it will take horrific loss of life (as in species, animal and plant) as well as horrific loss of life (as in human lives) before any real changes are made, and even then the human survivors may very well advocate burning fossil fuels to rebuild and recover. Sustainable life styles can’t include ongoing extinctions and the new player (say the last one hundred years?) on the chopping block is the rapid global warming that ALL seven billion (and counting, every day, every minute) of us are a part of, as ceriops pointed out above. But back at you Carlyle, willing to share some numbers with us regarding your own thoughts on extinction rates? (minus one, at least for the moment, yeah for the brown argus butterfly, no make that two, your polar bear comment)

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  15. 15. Carlyle 3:28 am 05/28/2012

    13. way2ec
    1:11 am 05/28/2012
    Pot sounds like something you are quite familia with. In my first post #7: Alarmism, crying wolf, is devaluing genuine cases of concern & turning people away from causes that do deserve attention.
    There are urgent actins that do need taking. Poaching rare animals for use in Eastern medicines is one. Another is the cruel treatment of captive bears to milk their bile ducts, though an issue of cruelty rather than extinction. The practice of Asian fishermen catching thousands of sharks, cutting off their fins for shark fin soup & returning the helpless still live animals to the ocean is not only cruel & incredibly wasteful but could endanger the species. Now giant Manta Rays are also in the cross hairs for the same purposes.
    You & your ilk would much rather deal in abstracts than real problems. Poachers do not satisfy your climate change agenda for example so you ignore them unless it can somehow be tied to your climate obsession.

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  16. 16. Carlyle 4:48 am 05/28/2012

    Further to the above. I am not happy about extinctions. I do not believe the loss rates put out by climate change fanatics but deeply regret the unthinking behaviour that has caused the loss of many species in the past. These losses were not caused by climate change during the past century but by habitat loss & sometimes human ignorance. Both these forces are still at play. Unfortunately the environmental movement continually make unsubstantiated claims about things like Polar Bears, Koalas, Kangaroos & many other iconic animals as a means of gaining publicity. When people realise they have been duped, it is much harder to enlist their help for genuine causes. Trying to tie species loss to climate change while largely ignoring clear felling of forest to grow bio fuel crops or killing rare animals for medicinal purposes is insane.

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  17. 17. way2ec 4:57 pm 05/28/2012

    So much insanity, so little time. Climate change “obsession”? If believing that the burning of the planets finite resources at current rates is not only not sustainable but is contributing to increases in CO2 and thus global warming is an “obsession” of mine, well who am I to disagree with you? I agree that if there are those who are using global warming and climate change for their own personal agendas, that that would “turn people away from causes that deserve attention”. I doubt that it compares with those who exploit fossil fuels for their own personal as well as geopolitical gains, while ignoring, or worse, lying about, what 400 ppm CO2 (and counting) means in terms of global warming and climate change. I have commented before and will again that the population bomb of 7 billion (and how many years to double that at current rates?) with those billions wanting and “deserving” the unsustainable lifestyles that burning half the world’s oil reserves has provided us with… OK, I’m alarmed. Aren’t you?

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  18. 18. Carlyle 5:26 pm 05/28/2012

    But you are against using nuclear power to cut the consumption of finite reserves of carbon based fuels. The only practical measure. Education & womens rights will cut population expansion. Campaign on that.

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  19. 19. GreenMind 7:52 pm 05/29/2012

    Carlyle and priddseren, I would like to ask you to answer a question in a way that is not “black and white” thinking. Instead of rejecting ALL of the claims of climate researchers about Climate Change, which ones seem reasonable? At what point does the simple physics of CO2 absorption turn into a hoax? Can you estimate a probability that the climate researchers are true and a probability that the whole thing is false?

    I have been attacked here as being a socialist, just because I believe that Climate Change is real and caused by humans. How much of your objection to Climate Change theory has to do with the particular solutions that are proposed to correct it, such as reducing emissions or using a carbon tax or trading emissions credits? Does it necessarily take a socialist government to solve Climate Change? How much is due to the idea that somebody is going to get rich by exploiting Climate Change, or is not living up to his own pronouncements, like Al Gore? How much to religious faith that mankind cannot possibly be powerful enough to change the climate, or that God would not permit it? How much is due to the fear that the government will use the crisis to seize power? How much is due to the fear that it will be too expensive to correct or that correcting it would disrupt the economy?

    Instead of those objections, how much is due to problems with the actual scientific predictions, and where do you get your information about that? I have to say that you have not presented any scientific arguments, mainly saying that you don’t believe the actual scientists.

    I believe that it is entirely possible that there are bad solutions, that unscrupulous people will try to make a profit from it, and that the government could try to use it to gain power. I don’t really know about whether God will permit it, but I do know that the entire Middle East used to be be called the Fertile Crescent, and now it is a desert because of the salt that built up on the land because of irrigation methods.

    I ask partly because I viewed a movie starring Steve Hayward, a historian who lectures against the acceptance of Climate Change on the basis that he finds scientific papers that disagree with each other. The movie is called “An Inconvenient Truth or Convenient Fiction: Sorting Out Sense from Nonsense on Global Warming”, which is supposed to be a reply to Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” He ended with a question and answer period in which he is asked the question, “What do you say to the notion that this is too important of an issue to risk being wrong on?” His reply is that the preservation of our liberty is too important to hand over to Al Gore. This answer shows that his agenda has nothing to do with science or evaluating the risk and likelihood of Climate Change, and everything to do with his fear of the methods that might be used to correct it, specifically people he doesn’t like.

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  20. 20. GreenMind 8:07 pm 05/29/2012

    Correction, the entire Middle East was not called the Fertile Crescent, but pretty close. Wikipedia provides this definition:

    “All definitions include Mesopotamia, the land in and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The major nation in this region is Iraq (formerly Mesopotamia), with small portions of Iran near the Persian Gulf, Kuwait to the south and Turkey in the north. More typically the Fertile Crescent includes also the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and the West Bank. Water sources include the Jordan River. At maximum extent, the Fertile Crescent also may include Egypt and the Nile Valley and Delta within it.”

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  21. 21. Carlyle 12:11 am 05/31/2012

    Take note of the new article: Rhinoceros Undergoes Assisted Reproduction to Rescue Species from Extinction
    Notice two things, two of the causes of extinctions that I mentioned, habitat loss & Palm oil.
    Now note. There is no mention of climate change so there are no posts (Except for an add).Quite a good article but no posts.
    This is exactly why researchers go into imaginative gymnastics to try & tie their research to climate science. That is where the money is. Likely to be some after this.

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  22. 22. way2ec 2:22 am 05/31/2012

    Carlyle, I think your last post is tied to what GreenMind is asking. Your knee jerk responses to the idea that Global Climate Change IS real and is a real threat don’t seem connected to the science of climate change. GreenMind is asking you to declare what IS underlying your rejections, or objections. You claim that climate science “is where the money is” as if that negates the data. Like there isn’t big money in other environmental sciences, or in preservation of species, or the whole “greening of America”, organic foods, etc.? Did you post a comment on the Rhino article objecting to the lack of comments and the implication that scientists are only interested in connecting everything to climate change so they can get more attention and big bucks, and thus have somehow abandoned other man-made disasters in the natural world? IS this what is at the bottom of your attacks (for lack of a better word) on climate science, climate scientists, and the current world wide attention that Global Climate Change is getting? (Which by the way hasn’t been enough to do much about even slowing down the rising CO2 levels) And I agree with GreenMind, it is amazing when we get labelled (socialists, liberals, democrats, republicans, or even body parts, blah blah blah) for commenting on these blogs. Your comment on the 28th regarding my(?) views on nuclear power would be another case in point. You don’t know my views on nuclear power. So, can you, will you tell us more about your rejection of climate change science as GreenMind has put to you?

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  23. 23. Carlyle 3:09 am 05/31/2012

    You go first. Give us your views on nuclear energy. GreenMind has some legitimate questions, if he is still visiting this site I will attempt to answer them. Before I bother though I would ask him what his views are on the leaked emails & on the Gleik affair. If he claims they have been peer reviewed & prove nothing about the honesty & veracity of those involved, I will not waste my time.

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  24. 24. GreenMind 5:51 pm 05/31/2012

    Carlyle, I’m still visiting this site. My views on the leaked emails and Gleick affair have nothing to do with what you believe. In fact, I could be the biggest idiot in the world and you would still be able to answer the question. So why condition your response on what I believe?

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  25. 25. GreenMind 7:22 pm 05/31/2012

    For the record, though, I think the emails showed a combination of many things. First, the scientists were certainly paranoid that any ambiguity in the data would be twisted by Climate Change deniers into a way to cast doubt on the whole subject. There is plenty of reason to think they were right about that, but of course that does excuse any dishonesty on their part.

    Second, they showed questionable judgment on how to handle the issue by not making the data public.

    Third, they used some jargon, “trick”, to describe a method of processing data that could easily be misinterpreted as making it look like they were faking the data. In my experience, mathematicians may describe something as a trick, when it is completely valid and rigorous, but unexpected and clever. They may have been just talking about a pretty cool way (maybe valid and maybe not) of getting at the real underlying trends. I don’t know if the trick was valid or not.

    Fourth, their deep concern (or perhaps paranoia) about scientists who were publishing papers denying Climate Change may have led them to speculate about how to prevent those papers from being published. I didn’t see any indication that they succeeded, but that kind of speculation would certainly be cause for questioning their honesty, and we all know that attempting that kind of thing would look worse than anything the opposing authors could claim.

    My opinion is partly based on my own experience. I have had known of cases in the biological sciences of scientists who faked their data, sabotaged other people’s experiments, deliberately mumbled when presenting their results at conferences so that nobody else would be able to understand what they had done, and prevented authors who challenged their theories from getting published. In general, these things did not prevent the truth from coming out eventually, so I am not really worried that these climate scientists actually could get away with fudging or manipulating anything. I do believe the National Academy of Sciences report that what the scientists did does not have any effect on the validity of the current research on Climate Change. The people I know who are in the NAS give me faith that there is no way that any of them would pull their punches if there was any doubt about what happened.

    I disagree with what the scientists did and said, but that does not prove that Climate Change is wrong. Likewise, the movie I mentioned in my previous post shows a lot of bias, hand-waving arguments, ridicule, emotional appeals, and poor logic, but that does not prove that Steve Hayward is wrong. The biggest idiot in the world could believe something, but that does not prove that he is wrong. I believe he is wrong for other reasons, scientific reasons, and I believe that Climate Change is a danger to humanity for many scientific reasons.

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  26. 26. Carlyle 12:57 am 06/1/2012

    I abhor scientists who lie about their work, refuse to divulge data, bully those who disagree with them, cause billions of dollars to be wasted, live off my taxes. That unfortunately encompasses a very large proportion of climate scientists. Add to the above that even with a shotgun approach where they predict a wide variety of short & long term outcomes, it is the rare pellet that hits its target. The whole debate centres around .8 of a degree Celsius global temperature increase over the past century. Only a fraction of that is above the long term trend & could reverse, returning to the long term trend at any time. If in fact it has not already happened as many are claiming. Only a few months more & the Arctic was predicted to be ice free. More hurricanes & cyclones claimed & blamed on global warming when in fact there has been a substantial decline. So it goes on.
    Stunning map of NOAA data showing 56 years of tornado tracks sheds light on the folly of linking “global warming” to severe weather.
    Those are some of my concerns.

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  27. 27. GreenMind 1:58 am 06/4/2012

    I think we can agree about the scientists who lie, bully, waste money, etc. No matter what the field they work in. Why do you think there is a very large proportion of them in climate science? Who do you believe instead of the climate scientists?

    I would like to direct you back to the question I asked. You have said a lot about what you don’t believe, but I would like to know whether it is because of not liking the people who say those things, like Al Gore, or because you don’t trust the government not to grab power, or for religious reasons, or because of the science itself. Do you think that the scientists are wrong because you can see for yourself that it is not happening, or because you have analyzed their data for yourself, or because someone you trust says they are wrong, or something else?

    You said several things here about the inaccuracy of predictions, the Arctic ocean, more hurricanes and cyclones, etc. (I could say a lot about the use of models in climate science, but they are not considered facts, only hypotheses.) What is it about those things that do you not believe, and why? Who do you believe instead? Is the risk to the economy a bigger danger than the risk of climate change?

    By the way, that reference you cite about the NOAA data is misleading. Perhaps some news commentators are saying that there are more tornadoes because of global warming, but not climate scientists, and not the IPCC. The fact that tornadoes are not linked to global warming does not mean that other forms of extreme weather are not linked to it. It is only “folly” to link extreme weather to global warming when it is NOT linked to it. It is wisdom to link extreme weather to global warming when it IS linked to it. One of the goals of the IPCC is to sort out which is which.

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