Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Biology


Recent research on the ecological consequences of climate warming has demonstrated that a wide range of vertebrate, invertebrate and plant species have, on average, shifted their distributions towards the poles and to higher elevations. However, individual species vary greatly in their rates of range expansion. The source of this variation is unknown, but is vital to study if we are to understand the fundamental limits on species' distributions, to identify those species that require conservation action, and thereby to devise evidence-based conservation strategies.

The proposed research will evaluate why species vary in the rates and directions that their leading-edge (high latitude) range boundaries have shifted over the past 40 years. Our approach will be to focus first on whether climate factors explain most of the observed variation, and then consider habitat factors, using explanatory variables that can be computed and tested across many species and taxa. We will evaluate whether variation in range expansion is determined primarily by variation in the sensitivities of individual species to different components of local climate. We will then address whether suitable habitats are available to colonise, and hence whether this additionally affects species' rates of response. For any remaining unexplained variation, we will then consider dispersal and other species' attributes (body size, development patterns) that might affect the likelihood of species colonising climatically-suitable areas that contain appropriate habitats. We will capitalise on extensive data sets available to examine range changes over the past four decades of climate warming. Our research will primarily use Lepidoptera as our focal model taxon (~ 135 study species). We will test the broader significance of our findings by extending our studies to >300 species from ~14 vertebrate and invertebrate taxa, and by exploring sources of within-species variation in expansion rates (via project PhD studentships). The project has the potential to develop a novel level of fundamental understanding of the dynamics of species' range boundaries and to identify factors constraining species-specific responses to climate change. Outputs from this research will also lead to the development of evidence-based conservation strategies for biodiversity under future climate change.

Planned Impact

Government agencies, policy-makers and practitioners urgently want to take climate change into account when developing land-use and management policies that are benign or beneficial for biodiversity, but in most cases the evidence base is lacking. This makes it impossible to determine when, where, and for which species, current conservation management is likely to be effective, or to develop better strategies. Little is known about which factors are constraining species, and hence which management options will be most effective for facilitating responses to climate for different species. Our main research programme focuses precisely on this issue. Our Impact Plan will extend the scope of the main project and engage actively with stakeholders. We will discuss the implications of our main project findings, develop new management options for species depending on limiting factors, and disseminate this information, thus extending the main proposal to develop effective evidence-based adaptation policies and practical conservation recommendations.

1. RESEARCH USERS AND THEIR REQUIREMENTS. The output of our research will have direct relevance to UK Government agencies (Natural England, CCW, SNH, Forestry commission, Defra), national NGOs (National NGOs / Conservation Charities; Project Partner Butterfly Conservation, Buglife, and RSPB, National Trust, Plantlife, BSBI), and local NGOs / Conservation Charities (e.g., County Trusts, those involved in Nature Improvement Areas). Internationally, it will be relevant to European/Global government and intergovernmental bodies/frameworks (e.g., EU, UNEP, CoP) and European/Global NGOs / Conservation Charities (e.g., Butterfly Conservation Europe, Birdlife, IUCN, WWF). All of these organisations are interested in developing conservation strategies that will be robust under climate change. However, they are constrained by a lack of evidence to provide firm foundations for the development of conservation policies and practical actions. Government and NGOs typically require basic results to be re-framed in a manner directly relevant to conservation policies and actions.

Engagement with policy makers and practitioners will take place through:

a) Co-development of research and publications. We will continue our strategy of co-development and co-authorship of scientific papers.

b) Assessment of need through a knowledge exchange workshop. The lead PI and project team will organise a workshop with ~20 stakeholders (including representatives from Project Partner Butterfly Conservation, and inviting representatives from e.g., Natural England, CCW, SNH, JNCC, Forestry Commission, Defra, Buglife, RSPB, National Trust, Plantlife, BSBI, WWF, UNEP, County Trusts, and NIAs) to present results and to co-develop a structure for how stakeholders would like the key results to be summarised and framed for maximum impact within their organisations and memberships.

c) Production of a report to summarise findings according to stakeholder needs. The report will identify the most important constraints on range expansion for UK species, and the management and policy implications stemming from those conclusions. This can help inform appropriate adaptation actions to facilitate range shifts under climate change. The exact form of the report will be shaped by the workshop with stakeholders.

d) Publication and presentation of report to stakeholders. The report will be published in a form appropriate to stakeholders, as defined during the workshop. We will present the key conclusions in talks to NGOs/policy-relevant audiences.

e) Wider result dissemination to the general public. Results will be disseminated through electronic and printed media. All partners have effective press offices and individual commitment to dissemination.


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Mason S (2015) Geographical range margins of many taxonomic groups continue to shift polewards in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society

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Palmer G (2017) Climate change, climatic variation and extreme biological responses in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

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Thomas CD (2015) Reply to Hulme et al.: Cover of non-native species is too low to adversely affect native plant diversity at a national scale. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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Thomas CD (2015) Non-native plants add to the British flora without negative consequences for native diversity. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Description We have found that extreme climatic events change population sizes of many species, but that these effects are often relatively short-lived. We have discovered that changes in average conditions, rather than extremes drive long term population trends.
Exploitation Route Further analyses of the relative importance of extremes versus mean climate change would help illuminated whether environmental bodies should be managing in the expectation that species will respond to average future conditions, versus extreme events.
Sectors Environment