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Distribution and abundance of animal species (CLIM 024) - Assessment published Nov 2012

Generic metadata


Climate change Climate change (Primary topic)

Biodiversity Biodiversity

biodiversity | animals | climate change | amphibians | species | species richness | butterflies | terrestrial environment | reptiles | birds
DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 024
Temporal coverage:
1960-2008, 2021-2080, 2098
Geographic coverage:
Albania Andorra Austria Belarus Belgien Belgium Bosnia and Herzegovina Bulgaria Bulgarien Croatia Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Deutschland Dänemark Estland Estonia Finland Finnland France Frankreich Germany Greece Griechenland Hungary Iceland Ireland Irland Island Italien Italy Kosovo (UNSCR 1244/99) Latvia Lettland Liechtenstein Litauen Lithuania Luxembourg Luxemburg Macedonia (FYR) Malta Moldova Monaco Montenegro Netherlands Niederlande Norway Norwegen Poland Polen Portugal Romania Rumänien Russia San Marino Schweden Schweiz Serbia Slovakia Slovenia Slowakei Slowenien Spain Spanien Sweden Switzerland Turkey Ukraine Ungarn United Kingdom Großbritannien Zypern Österreich

Key policy question: How is climate change affecting the regional distribution of animals in Europe, and what are the implications for biodiversity?

Key messages

  • Observed climate change is having significant impacts on European fauna. These impacts include range shifts as well as local and regional extinctions of species.
  • There is a clear poleward trend of butterfly distributions from 1990 to 2007 in Europe. Nevertheless, the migration of many species is lagging behind the changes in climate, suggesting that they are unable to keep pace with the speed of climate change.
  • Distribution changes are projected to continue. Suitable climatic conditions for Europe’s breeding birds are projected to shift nearly 550 km north-east by the end of the 21st century under a scenario of 3 °C warming, with the average range size shrinking by 20 %.
  • Habitat use and fragmentation and other obstacles are impeding the migration of many animal species. The difference between required and actual migration rate may lead to a progressive decline in European biodiversity.

Observed latitudinal shifts of four species over 25 years in Britain

Note: This graph shows the observed latitudinal shifts of the northern range boundaries of species within 4 exemplar taxonomic groups, studied over 25 years in Britain. (A) Spiders (85 species), (B) ground beetles (59 species), (C) butterflies (29 species), and (D) grasshoppers and allies (22 species). Positive latitudinal shifts indicate movement toward the north (pole); negative values indicate shifts toward the south (Equator). Horizontal lines mark the Median, boxes the 25 to 75 % quartile and whisker the range (up to 1.5 times the interquartile distance). Open Circles are outliers.

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European variations in the temporal trend of bird and butterfly community temperature index

Note: The map shows the temporal trend of bird and butterfly CTI for each country. A temporal increase in CTI directly reflects that the species assemblage of the site is increasingly composed of individuals belonging to species dependent on higher temperature. The height of a given arrow is proportional to the temporal trend and its direction corresponds to the sign of the slope (from south to north for positive slopes). The arrow is opaque if the trend is significant.

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Projected impact of climate change on the potential distribution of reptiles and amphibians in 2050

Note: Projected data based on the Generalised Linear Model map using the HadCM3 A2 scenario for the 2050s are compared with the current situation.

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Projected changes in the climate niche space of the Small Tortoise shell

Note: This figure shows the future distribution of climate niche space of the Small Tortoise shell (Aglais urticae) under the A2 climate change scenario and two future time periods (2021-2050 left, 2051-2080 right). Dark grey areas show space that remains suitable, magenta areas space that is lost and green areas show space that could be gained under full dispersal. Northern parts of Europe are expected to remain suitable for the Small Tortoiseshell under all scenarios, but large areas of central Europe would become unsuitable. The worst case loss is 55% of its climatic niche by 2080 under no dispersal or 46% loss under full dispersal.

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Projected changes in mammalian species richness

Note: Projected changes in in mammalian species richness by 2100 under emissions scenarios B1 (left) and A2 (right) in a 10’ resolution. Units in percentage.

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Key assessment

Past trends

A wide variety of animal species in Europe has moved northward and uphill during recent decades. The distributions of many terrestrial organisms have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11 m per decade, and to higher latitudes at a rate of 17 km per decade (Figure 1) [i]. These range shifts are partly attributable to observed changes in climatic conditions but land-use and other environmental changes also play a role [ii]. In Britain, 275 of 329 animal species analysed over the last 25 years have shifted their ranges northwards by 31–60 km, 52 shifted southwards, and 2 did not move [iii]. However, many species, including butterflies, are failing to move as quickly as might be expected under the current rate of climate change [iv].

Climate change can benefit some species. One example is the wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi), which has multiplied its range in central and northern Europe during the 20th century and is still spreading. This range expansion is at least partly temperature-driven [v]. In Germany, the once rare scarlet darter dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea) has spread from the south, paralleling observed changes in climate, and is now found in every federal state [vi]. Under a scenario of 3 °C warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the ranges of European breeding birds are projected to shift by about 550 km to the north-east, whereby average range size would be reduced by 20 %. Arctic, sub-Arctic, and some Iberian species are projected to suffer the greatest range losses [vii].

Climate change has already influenced species richness and composition of European bird communities [viii]. A study of 122 terrestrial bird species indicated that climate change has influenced population trends across Europe since around 1985, with impacts becoming stronger over time. The study shows that populations of 92 species have declined, largely because of climate change, whereas 30 species have generally increased [ix]. In a study of 57 non-migratory European butterflies, 36 had shifted their ranges to the north by 35–240 km and only 2 had shifted to the south in the past 30–100 years[x]. The habitat of 16 mountain-restricted butterflies in Spain has decreased by about one third over the last 30 years, and lower altitudinal limits rose on average by 210 m [xi].

The Community Temperature Index (CTI) is a measure for the rate of change in community composition in response to temperature change. According to changes in the CTI, butterfly communities become increasingly composed of species associated with warmer temperatures. For example, the CTI of butterfly communities across Europe has increased by only 0.014 °C per year from 1970 to 2007. However, temperature has increased by 0.039 °C per year in the same period, that is almost three times faster than the butterfly community could move north [xii]. The finding that the movement of animal species is unable to keep pace with climate change has been confirmed in an analysis of the CTI of several thousand local bird and butterfly communities across Europe (Figure 2) [xiii].

The Arctic contribution to global biodiversity is substantial as the region supports globally significant populations of birds, mammals and fish. The Arctic Species Trend Index (ASTI) has been tracking trends in 306 Arctic species. An analysis of the ASTI over 34 years (1970–2004) has shown that the abundance of high Arctic vertebrates declined by 26 % whereas low Arctic vertebrate species increased in abundance. Sub-Arctic species did not show a trend over the whole time period but they seem to decline since the mid-1980s [xiv]. There is some evidence that climate change has already played a role in the spread of alien animal species.


The northward and uphill movement of many animal species is projected to continue this century. Threatened endemics with specific demands in ecotope or a small distribution range will generally be at greatest risk, in particular if they face migration barriers[xv]. The difficulty of modelling species dispersal is one of the major uncertainties in projections of changes in species distribution. Dispersal is constrained not only by a species’ ability to move but also by factors such as habitat fragmentation and the availability and migratory ability of host plants or prey organisms. It is likely that many species will not be able to track climate change because of dispersal constraints [xvi].

The limited dispersal ability of many reptiles and amphibians, combined with the fragmentation of habitats, is very likely to reduce and isolate the ranges of many of those species, particularly in the Iberian Peninsula and parts of Italy (Figure 3) [xvii]. Similar results were found in a comprehensive study that assessed the future distribution of European butterflies in 2050 and 2080 under three different climate change scenarios [xviii]. The study shows that climate change poses a considerable additional risk to European butterflies (Figure 4). The risk varies considerably under different emissions scenarios and assumptions regarding dispersal ability. Under the high-emission SRES A1FI scenario, 24 % of the modelled butterfly species lose more than 95 % of their present climatic niche by 2080 and 78 % lose more than 50 %. These numbers are reduced to 3 % and 48 %, respectively, for the low-emission SRES B1 scenario. The risk is much lower, and much more similar across scenarios, by 2050.

A study on the effects of projected climate change on 181 terrestrial mammals in the Mediterranean region projected significant declines in species richness (e.g. 68 % of all mammals) during this century even if movement through fragmented landscapes was possible [xix]. A study based on bioclimatic envelope modelling for 120 native terrestrial European mammals under two climate scenarios showed that 1 % or 5–9 % of European mammals risk extinction [xx]. Thirty-two to 46 % or 70–78 % may lose more than 30 % of their current distribution (Figure 5).

Another study simulated phylogenetic diversity for plants, birds and mammals in an ensemble of forecasts for 2020, 2050 and 2080 [xxi]. The results show that the tree of life faces a homogenisation across the continent due to a reduction in phylogenetic diversity for southern Europe (where immigration from northern Africa was not considered) and gains in high latitudes and altitudes

In polar regions, projected reductions in sea ice will dramatically reduce habitat for polar bears, seals and other ice-dependent species. In addition to climate change, these top predators will also be affected by declining fish stocks.

[i] I-Ching Chen et al., „Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming“, Science 333, Nr. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1024–1026, doi:10.1126/science.1206432.

[ii] O. Schweiger et al., „Multiple stressors on biotic interactions: how climate change and alien species interact to affect pollination“, Biological Reviews 85, Nr. 4 (2010): 777–795, doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00125.x; O. Schweiger et al., „Increasing range mismatching of interacting species under global change is related to their ecological characteristics“, Global Ecology and Biogeography 21, Nr. 1 (2012): 88–99, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00607.x.

[iii] R. Hickling et al., „The distributions of a wide range of taxonomic groups are expanding polewards“, Global Change Biology 12, Nr. 3 (2006): 450–455, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2006.01116.x.

[iv] MS Warren et al., „Rapid responses of British butterflies to opposing forces of climate and habitat change“, Nature 414, Nr. 6859 (2001): 65–69, doi:10.1038/35102054.

[v] Sabrina Kumschick et al., „Rapid spread of the wasp spider Argiope bruennichi across Europe: a consequence of climate change?“, Climatic Change 109, Nr. 3–4 (Juni 28, 2011): 319–329, doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0139-0.

[vi] Jürgen Ott, „Dragonflies and climatic change - recent trends in Germany and Europe“, BIORISK – Biodiversity and Ecosystem Risk Assessment 5, Nr. Special issue (Dezember 30, 2010): 253–286, doi:10.3897/biorisk.5.857.

[vii] Brian Huntley et al., „Potential Impacts of Climatic Change on European Breeding Birds“, PLoS ONE 3, Nr. 1 (Januar 16, 2008): e1439, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001439.

[viii] Nicole Lemoine, Hans‐Christian Schaefer, and Katrin Böhning‐Gaese, „Species Richness of Migratory Birds Is Influenced by Global Climate Change“, Global Ecology and Biogeography 16, Nr. 1 (Januar 1, 2007): 55–64, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2006.00252.x; Richard D. Gregory et al., „An Indicator of the Impact of Climatic Change on European Bird Populations“, PLoS ONE 4, Nr. 3 (März 4, 2009): e4678, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004678.

[ix] Gregory et al., „An Indicator of the Impact of Climatic Change on European Bird Populations“.

[x] C. Parmesan et al., „Poleward shifts in geographical ranges of butterfly species associated with regional warming“, Nature 399, Nr. 6736 (1999): 579–583, doi:10.1038/21181.

[xi] R.J. Wilson et al., „Changes to the elevational limits and extent of species ranges associated with climate change“, Ecology Letters 8, Nr. 11 (2005): 1138–1146, doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2005.00824.x.

[xii] C.A.M. van Swaay et al., „Butterfly monitoring in Europe: methods, applications and perspectives“, Biodiversity and Conservation 17, Nr. 14 (2008): 3455–3469, doi:10.1007/s10531-008-9491-4.

[xiii] Vincent Devictor et al., „Differences in the climatic debts of birds and butterflies at a continental scale“, Nature Clim.ateChange 2, Nr. 2 (Februar 2012): 121–124, doi:10.1038/nclimate1347.

[xiv] L. McRae et al., Arctic Species Trend Index 2010: Tracking Trends in Arctic Wildlife CAFF CBMP Report (Akureyri, Iceland: CAFF International Secretariat, 2010),

[xv] Lemoine, Schaefer, and Böhning‐Gaese, „Species Richness of Migratory Birds Is Influenced by Global Climate Change“; T. Dirnböck, F. Essl, and W. Rabitsch, „Disproportional risk for habitat loss of high-altitude endemic species under climate change“, Global Change Biology 17, Nr. 2 (2011): 990–996, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2010.02266.x.

[xvi] O. Schweiger et al., „Climate change can cause spatial mismatch of trophically interacting species“, Ecology 89, Nr. 12 (2008): 3472–3479, doi:10.1890/07-1748.1; Devictor et al., „Differences in the climatic debts of birds and butterflies at a continental scale“.

[xvii] M. B Araújo, W. Thuiller, and R. G Pearson, „Climate Warming and the Decline of Amphibians and Reptiles in Europe“, Journal of Biogeography 33, Nr. 10 (Oktober 1, 2006): 1712–1728, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2006.01482.x; Hickling et al., „The distributions of a wide range of taxonomic groups are expanding polewards“.

[xviii] J. Settele et al., Climatic risk atlas of European butterflies Biorisk 1 - Special Issue (Sofia: Pensoft, 2008),

[xix] Luigi Maiorano et al., „The future of terrestrial mammals in the Mediterranean basin under climate change“, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366, Nr. 1578 (September 27, 2011): 2681–2692, doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0121.

[xx] Irina Levinsky et al., „Potential impacts of climate change on the distributions and diversity patterns of European mammals“, Biodiversity and Conservation 16, Nr. 13 (Juni 6, 2007): 3803–3816, doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9181-7.

[xxi] W. Thuiller et al., „Consequences of climate change on the tree of life in Europe“, Nature 470, Nr. 7335 (2011): 531–534, doi:10.1038/nature09705.

Data sources

More information about this indicator

See this indicator specification for more details.

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


EEA Management Plan

2012 2.0.1 (note: EEA internal system)


Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years in October-December (Q4)
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