Climate Change Ecology

Current Activity

Biological records represent an essential resource to document and understand the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. High quality data has enabled the UK to be at the forefront of climate change research. Internationally important publications have also been produced directly from the data provided by volunteer schemes and societies.  Current projects using biological recording data include assessing the risks and opportunities faced by individual species during climatic changes and identifying refugia which may help promote the persistence of species.

Key Outputs

Analyses of distribution data provided some of the first demonstrations of the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. Climate warming has caused many species to shift their distributions, with their responses often influenced by land use changes.  Biological recording has been invaluable in understanding these interacting effects, predicting the risks and opportunities faced by species from climate change and identifying appropriate ‘adaptation actions’ to reduce undesired climate change impacts.

Expansion of Conocephalus discolor, the long winged conehead, under climate warming

Map showing distribution change

Figure: B. Beckmann, CEH

Historical and recent biological records allow us to document changes in species’ distributions, many which are driven by changes in climatic suitability.

General patterns of northward range shift across many different taxonomic groups

Chart showing range shift across taxonomic group

Figure: S. Mason, CEH

Based on distribution data from 1960-2002, most animal groups have shown an average northward shift in their British range margin, albeit with substantial variation within groups. Bars show results for hectads where 10% of the species in a group were recorded in both time periods; similar results were obtained with other cut-off values.

Projected distribution change for an example species, Bombus ruderarius, the red-shanked carder bee

Map of predicted distribution

Figure: Tom Oliver, CEH

Bioclimate models relate observed occurrences to various climatic variables to produce a modelled ‘climatic suitability’ surface for a species. This map shows changes relative to the historic baseline where new climate space is shown as yellow and red, white squares showing areas of climate overlap, blue squares showing adversely sensitive areas and grey squares indicate areas climatically
unsuitable in both periods146.

Future Challenges

A challenge is to explain the different responses of species with similar initial ranges to climate change.  We continue to improve models to predict future changes, taking into account species ecology and patterns of recording. The substantial effort of volunteers in providing the geographic and taxonomic coverage of biological records is invaluable to increasing our understanding of the impacts of climate change. Ultimately, the development of robust evidence-based adaptation and conservation strategies is highly reliant on this unique data resource.


731 Pearce-Higgins James W., Beale Colin M., Oliver Tom H., August T.A., Carroll Matthew, Massimino Dario, Ockendon Nancy, Savage Joanna, Wheatley Christopher J., Ausden Malcolm A., Bradbury Richard B., Duffield Simon J., Macgregor Nicholas A., McClean Colin J., Morecroft Michael D., Thomas Chris D., Watts Olly, Beckmann B, Fox Richard, Roy Helen E., Sutton Peter G., Walker Kevin J., Crick Humphrey Q.P. (2017) A national-scale assessment of climate change impacts on species: Assessing the balance of risks and opportunities for multiple taxa. ,
733 Sutton Peter G., Beckmann B, Nelson Brian (2017) The current status of Orthopteroid insects in Britain and Ireland. ,
RN249 Santini Luca, Isaac Nick J. B., Ficetola Gentile Francesco (2018) TetraDENSITY: A database of population density estimates in terrestrial vertebrates. ,
RN251 Isaac Nick J. B., Brotherton PNM, Bullock JM, Gregory Richard D, Boehning‐Gaese K, Connor Ben, Crick Humphrey QP, Freckleton Rob P, Gill JA, Hails RS (2018) Defining and delivering resilient ecological networks: nature conservation in England. ,
RN267 Santini Luca, Isaac Nick J. B., Maiorano Luigi, Ficetola Gentile Francesco, Huijbregts Mark AJ, Carbone Chris, Thuiller Wilfried (2018) Global drivers of population density in terrestrial vertebrates. ,
RN274 Pescott OL, Jitlal Mark S., Beckmann B, Roy D. B., Walker KJ, Dore A, Smart S.M. (2018) The use of National Plant Monitoring Scheme data for making inferences concerning air pollution impacts. ,
RN282 Palmer Georgina, Platts Philip J, Brereton Tom, Chapman Jason W, Dytham Calvin, Fox Richard, Pearce-Higgins James W, Roy D. B., Hill Jane K, Thomas Chris D (2017) Climate change, climatic variation and extreme biological responses. ,
RN336 Stroh P. A., Pescott OL, Mountford J. O. (2017) Long-term changes in lowland calcareous grassland plots using Tephroseris integrifolia subsp. integrifolia as an indicator species. ,
RN360 Mills Simon C., Oliver T. H., Bradbury Richard B., Gregory Richard D., Brereton Tom, Kühn Elisabeth, Kuussaari Mikko, Musche Martin, Roy D. B., Schmucki Reto, Stefanescu Constanti, van Swaay Chris, Evans Karl L. (2017) European butterfly populations vary in sensitivity to weather across their geographical ranges. ,
RN364 Oliver T. H., Gillings Simon, Pearce-Higgins James W., Brereton Tom, Crick Humphrey Q. P., Duffield Simon J., Morecroft Michael D., Roy D. B. (2017) Large extents of intensive land use limit community reorganization during climate warming. ,