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Distribution of animal species (CLIM 024) - Assessment published Sep 2008

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Update planned for November 2012

Generic metadata


Climate change Climate change (Primary topic)

biodiversity | animals | climate change | amphibians | birds | reptiles | distribution | species | population
DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 024
Temporal coverage:
1980-2005, 2008, 2050

Key policy question:

Key messages

  • Europe's birds, insects, mammals and other groups are moving northwards and uphill, largely in response to observed climate change. But rates of distribution change are not necessarily keeping pace with changing climate.
  • A combination of the rate of climate change, habitat fragmentation and other obstacles will impede the movement of many animal species, possibly leading to a progressive decline in European biodiversity.
  • Distribution changes are projected to continue. Suitable climatic conditions for Europe's breeding birds are projected to shift nearly 550 km northeast by the end of the century, with the average range size shrinking by 20 %. Projections for 120 native European mammals suggest that up to 9 % (assuming no migration) risk extinction during the 21st century.

Impact of climate change on populations of European birds, 1980-2005

Note: Weighted composite population trends under climate change were modelled as an index for two groups of widespread European land birds for 1980 to 2005, using climate envelope models

Data source:

Gregory, R. D.; Willis, S. G.; Jiguet, F.; VoYíaek, P.; KlvaHová, A.; van Strien, A.; Huntley, B.; Collingham, Y. C.; Couvet, D. and Green, R. E., 2008. An indicator of the impact of climatic change on European bird populations (in press).

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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.

Data source:
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Latitudinal shifts in northern range margins in the United Kingdom for selected groups of animal species over the past 40 years

Note: Results for 16 taxonomic groups of animal species are given for three levels of data subsampling (recorded, green; wellrecorded, orange; heavily recorded, blue)

Data source:

Hickling, R.; Roy, D. B.; Hill, J. K.; Fox, R. and Thomas, C. D., 2006. The distributions of a wide range of taxonomic groups are expanding polewards. Global Change Biology 12: 450455.

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Key assessment

Past trends

The northward and uphill movement of a wide variety of animal species has been observed over recent decades across Europe. These observations are partly attributable to observed changes in climatic conditions, whilst others are triggered more by land-use and other environmental changes.
In Britain, 275 of 329 animal species analysed over the last 25 years shifted their ranges northwards by 31-60 km, 52 shifted southwards, and two did not move (UKCIP, 2005; Hickling et al., 2006) (Figure 1). However, many species, including butterflies, are failing to move as quickly as might be expected under the current rate of climate change (Warren et al., 2001).
Climate change has also already influenced the species richness and composition of European bird communities (Lemoine et al., 2007; Gregory et al., 2008). A recent study of 122 terrestrial bird species indicated that, from around 1985, climate change has influenced population trends across Europe, with impacts becoming stronger over time (Figure 2). The study shows that 92 species have declined their populations because of climate change, whereas 30 species have generally increased (Gregory et al., 2008).
In a study of 57 non-migratory European butterflies, 36 had shifted their ranges to the north by 35-240 km and only two had shifted to the south (Parmesan et al., 1999). The sooty copper (Heodes tityrus), for example, spread north from Catalonia and by 2006 had established breeding populations on the Baltic coast (Parmesan et al., 1999). In Spain, the habitat of 16 mountain-restricted butterflies reduced by about one third over the last 30 years; lower altitudinal limits rose on average by 212 m - in line with a 1.3 oC rise in mean annual temperature (Wilson et al., 2005).
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 (Ott, 2007). Similarly, the spread of the comma butterfly in the Netherlands has been linked to recent climate change patterns.


Projections suggest that the northward and uphill movement of many animal species will continue this century. Widespread species may be less vulnerable, while threatened endemics - already under pressure - will be at greatest risk, although there will be spatial variation (Levinsky et al., 2007; Lemoine et al., 2007). An important constraint will be the ability of species to move. This ability represents a significant research challenge, especially in the context of the effectiveness of ecological networks under a fast-changing climate. The limited dispersal ability of many reptile and amphibians, coupled with the fragmentation of ecological networks, is very likely to reduce the ranges of many species (Hickling et al., 2006; Araujo et al., 2006), particularly those in the Iberian Peninsula and parts of Italy (Figure 3).
A study of 120 native terrestrial mammals projected that species richness is likely to reduce dramatically this century in the Mediterranean region, but increase towards the northeast and in mountainous areas such as the Alps and Pyrenees, assuming that movement through fragmented landscapes is possible.
Under a 3 oC climate warming scenario (above pre-industrial levels), the ranges of European breeding birds are projected to shift by the end of the 21st century by about 550 km to the northeast, with average range size being 20 % smaller. Arctic, sub-Arctic, and some Iberian species are projected to suffer the greatest range losses (Huntley et al., 2008).
In polar regions, projected reductions in sea ice will drastically reduce habitat for polar bears, seals and other ice-dependent species (IPCC, 2007). In addition to climate change, these top predators will also be affected by declining fish stocks.

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

2008 2.3.1 (note: EEA internal system)


Document Actions
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100