Global weather and local butterflies: variable responses to a large-scale climate pattern along an elevational gradient

Understanding the spatial and temporal scales at which environmental variation affects populations of plants and animals is an important goal for modern population biology, especially in the context of shifting climatic conditions.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) generates climatic extremes of interannual variation, and has been shown to have significant effects on the diversity and abundance of a variety of terrestrial taxa. However, studies that have investigated the influence of such large-scale climate phenomena have often been limited in spatial and taxonomic scope.

Researchers used 23 years (1988–2010) of a long-term butterfly monitoring data set to explore associations between variation in population abundance of 28 butterfly species and variation in ENSO-derived sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTA) across 10 sites that encompass an elevational range of 2750 m in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California.

Their analysis detected a positive, regional effect of increased SSTA on butterfly abundance (wetter and warmer years predict more butterfly observations), yet the influence of SSTA on butterfly abundances varied along the elevational gradient, and also differed greatly among the 28 species.

Migratory species had the strongest relationships with ENSO-derived SSTA, suggesting that large-scale climate indices are particularly valuable for understanding biotic-abiotic relationships of the most mobile species. In general, however, the ecological effects of large-scale climatic factors are context-dependent between sites and species.

The results illustrate the power of long-term data sets for revealing pervasive yet subtle climatic effects, but also caution against expectations derived from exemplar species or single locations in the study of biotic-abiotic interactions.

Citation Nicholas A. Pardikes, Arthur M. Shapiro, Lee A. Dyer, and Matthew L. Forister 2015. Global weather and local butterflies: variable responses to a large-scale climate pattern along an elevational gradient. Ecology 96:2891–2901. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/15-0661.1