Press release from December 11th, 2008

Butterflies across Europe face crisis as climate change looms

Climate change will cause Europe to lose much of its biodiversity as projected by a comprehensive study on future butterfly distribution. The Climatic Risk Atlas of European Butterflies predicts northward shifts in potential distribution area of many European butterfly species. As early warning indicators of environmental change, butterflies are a valuable tool to assess overall climate change impact and to provide some indication on the chances to come nearer to the target of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 set by the EU Heads of State in 2001.

Butterfly Lycaena virgaureae

The scarce copper (Lycaena virgaureae) is one of the butterflies, researchers analyzed.
Photo: Albert Vliegenthart/Butterfly Conservation Europe (BCE)

download as jpg (1.0 MB)

Butterfly Boloria selene

The Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene).
Photo: Albert Vliegenthart/Butterfly Conservation Europe (BCE)

download as jpg (1.6 MB)

Butterfly Phengaris nausithous

The Dusky Large Blue (Phengaris nausithous) will move from Central Europe to the south of Scandinavia.
Photo: Dr. Josef Settele/UFZ

download as jpg (0.6 MB)

Terms of use

The Climatic Risk Atlas of European Butterflies is based on the work of scores of scientists from across Europe. They applied climate change models to data collected by tens of thousands of volunteers. The authors say that some climate change is now inevitable and that the extent of the losses will depend on the degree of that change and how we respond to the new threat. Butterflies have already suffered huge losses across Europe following decades of habitat loss and changing farming and forestry practices. As temperatures rise, majority of butterfly species will try to head north. This won’t always be achievable. The forestry and farming changes mean that areas of suitable habitat are now often small and too far apart for butterflies to travel between them.

The worst-case scenario scientists examined sees the average European temperature rise by 4.1°C by 2080. In that case over 95 per cent of the present land occupied by 70 different butterflies would become too warm for continued survival. The best case-scenario sees a 2.4°C temperature rise. Even this would mean that 50 per cent of the land occupied by 147 different butterflies would become too warm for them to continue to exist there. Many butterflies will largely disappear from where they are regularly seen now. The Small Tortoiseshell will become absent from a huge swathe of middle and southern Europe and will become restricted to northern Europe. Under the worst-case scenario, rare species like the Spanish Festoon Zerynthia rumina would experience a 97% loss from Spain and Southern France, and the Apollo Parnassius apollo would suffer a 76% loss from mountainous areas.

Climate change is already having an impact on butterflies. Over 60 mobile species with widespread food-plants are known to have spread north in Europe over recent decades, including the Comma Polygonia c-album, which is spreading north in the UK at 10km per year. Other species have moved further up mountains. The chief author of Climatic Atlas of European Butterflies is Dr Josef Settele from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Germany. He said: "The Atlas shows for the first time how the majority of European butterflies might respond to climate change. Most species will have to shift their distribution radically to keep pace with the changes. The way butterflies change will indicate the possible response of many other insects, which collectively comprise over two-thirds of all species."

Dr Martin Warren, Chairman of Butterfly Conservation Europe and one of the authors, said "Evidence points to an acceleration in climate change after 2050 unless there is a significant decrease in global CO2 emissions. This accelerated change would be the final nail in the coffin for many European species. We need to be ready for this worst-case scenario. We need place more emphasis on maintaining large, diverse populations on existing habitats while re-connecting habitats to allow species to move across the landscape. This means working closely with farmers and planners."
Dr Ladislav Miko, Director of Nature Conservation at the EU Environment Directorate in Brussels, said: "We strongly welcome this important study which helps us understand how species might respond to climate change. The evidence points to a radical change in species’ distribution, which we must plan for within future European policies. The results show the enormous scientific value of records from thousands of volunteers across Europe."

Sebastian Winkler, Head of Countdown 2010, stated "The astounding outcomes of this study should remind world leaders once more that if immediate action is not taken, the 2010 biodiversity target will not be reached and biological diversity will continue to decline." The Climatic Risk Atlas of European Butterflies is published by Pensoft - a science publisher based in Sofia, Bulgaria - and can be viewed online at It was written by researchers from across Europe under the EU Sixth Framework programme projects: ALARM (Assessing Large-scale Environmental Risks for biodiversity with tested Methods) and MACIS (Minimisation of and Adaptation to Climate change Impacts on biodiversity)


PD Dr. Josef Settele
Butterfly Conservation Europe & Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung (UFZ)
Department of Community Ecology
Phone +49 345 558 5320 (email bevorzugt und zuverlässiger)

Martin Warren
Butterfly Conservation Europe & Butterfly Conservation (UK)
Phone: ++ 44 7775 590750

Dirk Maes
Butterfly Conservation Europe & Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO)
Phone ++322 5581837

Lester Cowlin
Butterfly Conservation Europe & Butterfly Conservation (UK)
Press officer
Phone ++44 1929 406008


Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)
Press office
Tilo Arnhold
Phone +49 341 235 1269


Settele J, Kudrna O, Harpke A, Kuehn I, van Swaay C, Verovnik R, Warren M, Wiemers M, Hanspach J, Hickler T, Kuehn E, van Halder I, Veling K, Vliegenthart A, Wynhoff I, Schweiger O (2008)
Climatic Risk Atlas of European Butterflies, Biorisk 1 (Special Issue)
ISSN 1313-2652 (online), ISSN 1313-2644 (print), ISBN 978-954-642-454-9 (paperback), ISBN 978-954-642-455-6 (hardback), 165x240,
full color edition, recent and modeled (2050, 2080) distribution maps, photo and data on biology and ecology of each species, general chapter on methods of mapping and modeling, references, index, in English.

At the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) scientists research the causes and consequences of far-reaching environmental changes. They study water resources, biological diversity, the consequences of climate change and adaptation possibilities, environmental and biotechnologies, bio energy, the behaviour of chemicals in the environment and their effect on health, as well as modelling and social science issues. Their guiding research principle is supporting the sustainable use of natural resources and helping to secure these basic requirements of life over the long term under the influence of global change. The UFZ employs 900 people at its sites in Leipzig, Halle and Magdeburg. It is funded by the German government and by the states of Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

The Helmholtz Association helps solve major, pressing challenges facing society, science and the economy with top scientific achievements in six research areas: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Key Technologies, Structure of Matter, Transport and Space. With 25,700 employees in 15 research centres and an annual budget of around EUR 2.3 billion, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest scientific organisation. Its work follows in the tradition of the great natural scientist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894).