Species interactions

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-196-en
Also known as: CLIM 026
expired Created 29 Jul 2014 Published 29 Jul 2014 Last modified 03 Feb 2017, 03:24 PM
This content has been archived on 03 Feb 2017, reason: No more updates will be done
Climate change is affecting the interaction of species that depend on each other for food or other reasons. It can disrupt established interactions but also generate novel ones. Negative effects on single species are often amplified by changes in interactions with other species, in particular for specialist species.

This indicator will be discontinued in January 2017.

Key messages

  • Climate change is affecting the interaction of species that depend on each other for food or other reasons. It can disrupt established interactions but also generate novel ones.
  • Negative effects on single species are often amplified by changes in interactions with other species, in particular for specialist species.

How is climate change affecting food networks and other species interactions, and what are the implications for biodiversity?

Projected spatial mismatches of the Portuguese Dappled White butterfly and its host plants

Note: This figure shows spatial mismatches of the Portuguese Dappled White butterfly (Euchloe tagis) and its host plants under the BAMBU scenario (climate: A2) for 2050-2080. Green, suitable climate space for the host plants;orange, suitable climate space for the butterfly; red, suitable area for both butterfly and host plants; open circles, currently observed distribution. BAMBU: Business-As-Might-Be-Usual scenario.

Data source:

Data provenance info is missing.

Downloads and more info

Past trends

Direct observations of the effects of recent climate change on competition are scarce and are generally thought not to have led directly to the extinction of species in Europe[i]. However, independent studies have shown that observed changes in the distribution and abundance of Populus species (a group of trees that are relatively weak competitors) in the Late Glacial (ca. 13 000–10 000 years ago) and in the 20th century could only be explained when the effects of climate change on its competitors were taken into account[ii]. Furthermore, it was shown that drought increases the level of competition between two oak trees (Quercus cerris and Q. petrea) in the Mediterranean region leading to detrimental changes of species functioning within local communities[iii].

Climate change has already lead to temporal mismatches between species that depend on each other for feeding and for pollination. For example, the egg hatch of the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) has advanced more than the budburst date of its larval food plant, the pedunculate oak (Quercus robur), over the past two decades, with potentially severe consequences for its fitness[iv]. Similarly, over a 30 year period, the occurrence of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) and the Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae) in relation to the flowering of crucial host plants in the Iberian Peninsula has changed from about 10 days and 5 days later to about 25 days and 15 days earlier, respectively[v]. Such temporal mismatches can severely impact pollination activities and the seed set of plants[vi]. However, it is also possible that effects of phenological mismatches are compensated. In a study of great tits (Parus major) in the Netherlands over a 40-year period, breeding populations were buffered against phenological mismatch of breeding time and seasonal food peak due to relaxed competition between individual fledglings[vii].

A recent review[viii] highlighted that species interaction can not only be affected by different shifts in phenologies or species ranges, but also by direct effect on the physiology of interacting species. On the example of plant and pollinator interactions, they show that physiological responses of flowers to warming are likely to affect pollinators in many ways. Physiological responses of the pollinators to warming, in turn, are likely to affect flowering plants.

Climate change has also disrupted several predator-prey relationships, such as between insectivorous birds and their insect prey in the Netherlands[ix]. In some cases, differential changes in phenology can also strengthen existing or create new predator-prey relationships, as observed by an increased predation pressure of the fat dormouse (Glis glis) on several songbirds in the Czech Republic[x].

Climate change can also generate new interactions in novel communities[xi]. In extreme cases, this can lead to severely transformed ecosystems where new species dominate. Such changes are particularly obvious at higher latitudes and altitudes, where growing and reproductive periods are prolonged or where previous thermal constraints are released with climate warming. In France, the range of the pine processionary moth (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) is no longer limited by temperature in many regions, enabling the species to expand its existing range into new areas and causing serious damage in pine forests[xii]. A more complex example concerns the European pine sawfly (Neodiprion sertifer) whose larvae develop faster under warmer conditions in Sweden which reduces the risk of predation and thus potentially increases the risk of insect outbreaks[xiii].


The consideration of species interactions such as competition, pollination or predator-prey networks can both increase[xiv] and decrease[xv] the projected extinction risk. A robust conclusion from existing observational and theoretical studies is that specialist species are at much higher risk from the effects of species interactions than generalist species.

A simulation study[xvi] showed that inter-specific competition can affect a species’ ability to follow changing climates. In particular, better dispersers were able to follow climate change but out-competed slower dispersers, possibly leading to their extinction. Another simulation study[xvii] for 14 tree species from 5768 forest plots in Europe showed that competition between species considerably reduced the pace of range shifts, leading to lags in following climate change.

Most butterfly species in Europe are not limited by the distribution of their larval host plants and thus appear rather insensitive to spatial mismatching with their hosts under future climate change. However, there are exceptions such as the Portuguese Dappled White butterfly (Euchloe tagis), which is projected to lose 20–48 % of its current area based on the loss of suitable climatic conditions by 2080, and 50–74 % when a reduced availability of host plants was also considered (Figure 1)[xviii]. Another study on butterflies along altitudinal gradients in Switzerland indicated that the importance of species interactions depends on climatic conditions. While butterfly distributions were not limited by their larval host plants at the lower (warmer) range limit, about 50% of the species were limited by the distribution of their host plants at the higher (cooler) range margin[xix]. Consequently, the ability of tracking changing climates of butterflies limited by their host plants at the cooler range margin will strongly depend on the dispersal and colonisation ability of the respective host plants.

[i] M. A. Davis, ‘Biotic Globalization: Does Competition from Introduced Species Threaten Biodiversity?’,Bioscience 53, no. 5 (2003): 481–89.

[ii] Matthew C Peros, K. Gajewski, and André E Viau, ‘Continental-Scale Tree Population Response to Rapid Climate Change, Competition and Disturbance’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 17, no. 5 (1 September 2008): 658–69, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2008.00406.x; R. Van Bogaert et al., ‘Competitive Interaction between Aspen and Birch Moderated by Invertebrate and Vertebrate Herbivores and Climate Warming’,Plant Ecology & Diversity 2, no. 3 (2009): 221–32, doi:10.1080/17550870903487456.

[iii] Charlotte Grossiord et al., ‘Interspecific Competition Influences the Response of Oak Transpiration to Increasing Drought Stress in a Mixed Mediterranean Forest’,Forest Ecology and Management 318 (15 April 2014): 54–61, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2014.01.004.

[iv] M. E. Visser and C. Both, ‘Shifts in Phenology due to Global Climate Change: The Need for a Yardstick’,Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 272, no. 1581 (2005): 2561–69, doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3356; C. Parmesan, ‘Ecological and Evolutionary Responses to Recent Climate Change’,Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37 (2006): 637–69, doi:10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.37.091305.110100; M. van Asch and M.E. Visser, ‘Phenology of Forest Caterpillars and Their Host Trees: The Importance of Synchrony’,Annual Review of Entomology 52 (2007): 37–55, doi:10.1146/annurev.ento.52.110405.091418; C. Both et al., ‘Climate Change and Unequal Phenological Changes across Four Trophic Levels: Constraints or Adaptations?’,Journal of Animal Ecology 78, no. 1 (2009): 73–83, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01458.x.

[v] O. Gordo and J.J. Sanz, ‘Phenology and Climate Change: A Long-Term Study in a Mediterranean Locality’,Oecologia 146, no. 3 (2005): 484–95, doi:10.1007/s00442-005-0240-z.

[vi] G. Kudo et al., ‘Does Seed Production of Spring Ephemerals Decrease When Spring Comes Early?’,Ecological Research 19, no. 2 (2004): 255–59, doi:10.1111/j.1440-1703.2003.00630.x.

[vii] Thomas E. Reed et al., ‘Population Growth in a Wild Bird Is Buffered Against Phenological Mismatch’,Science 340, no. 6131 (26 April 2013): 488–91, doi:10.1126/science.1232870.

[viii] V. L. Scaven and N. E. Rafferty, ‘Physiological Effects of Climate Warming on Flowering Plants and Insect Pollinators and Potential Consequences for Their Interactions’,Current Zoology 59(3) (2013): 418–26.

[ix] Marcel E. Visser, Leonard J. M. Holleman, and Philip Gienapp, ‘Shifts in Caterpillar Biomass Phenology Due to Climate Change and Its Impact on the Breeding Biology of an Insectivorous Bird’,Oecologia 147, no. 1 (1 February 2006): 164–72.

[x] P. Adamík and M. Král, ‘Climate and Resource-Driven Long-Term Changes in Dormice Populations Negatively Affect Hole-Nesting Songbirds’,Journal of Zoology 275, no. 3 (1 July 2008): 209–15, doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00415.x.

[xi] Sally A. Keith et al., ‘Non-Analogous Community Formation in Response to Climate Change’,Journal for Nature Conservation 17, no. 4 (December 2009): 228–35, doi:10.1016/j.jnc.2009.04.003; O. Schweiger et al., ‘Multiple Stressors on Biotic Interactions: How Climate Change and Alien Species Interact to Affect Pollination’,Biological Reviews 85, no. 4 (2010): 777–95, doi:10.1111/j.1469-185X.2010.00125.x.

[xii] C. Robinet et al., ‘Modelling the Effects of Climate Change on the Potential Feeding Activity of Thaumetopoea Pityocampa (Den. & Schiff.)(Lep., Notodontidae) in France’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 16, no. 4 (2007): 460–71, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2006.00302.x.

[xiii] Ida Kollberg et al., ‘Multiple Effects of Temperature, Photoperiod and Food Quality on the Performance of a Pine Sawfly’,Ecological Entomology 38, no. 2 (1 April 2013): 201–8, doi:10.1111/een.12005.

[xiv] O. Schweiger et al., ‘Climate Change Can Cause Spatial Mismatch of Trophically Interacting Species’,Ecology 89, no. 12 (2008): 3472–79, doi:10.1890/07-1748.1; Mark C. Urban et al., ‘The Evolutionary Ecology of Metacommunities’,Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23, no. 6 (June 2008): 311–17, doi:10.1016/j.tree.2008.02.007; Takefumi Nakazawa and Hideyuki Doi, ‘A Perspective on Match/mismatch of Phenology in Community Contexts’,Oikos 121, no. 4 (1 April 2012): 489–95, doi:10.1111/j.1600-0706.2011.20171.x.

[xv] Rosa Menéndez et al., ‘Escape from Natural Enemies during Climate-Driven Range Expansion: A Case Study’,Ecological Entomology 33, no. 3 (1 June 2008): 413–21, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2311.2008.00985.x; Rachel M. Pateman et al., ‘Temperature-Dependent Alterations in Host Use Drive Rapid Range Expansion in a Butterfly’,Science 336, no. 6084 (25 May 2012): 1028–30, doi:10.1126/science.1216980.

[xvi] M. C. Urban, J. J. Tewksbury, and K. S. Sheldon, ‘On a Collision Course: Competition and Dispersal Differences Create No-Analogue Communities and Cause Extinctions during Climate Change’,Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279, no. 1735 (2012): 2072–80, doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2367.

[xvii] Eliane S. Meier et al., ‘Climate, Competition and Connectivity Affect Future Migration and Ranges of European Trees’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 21, no. 2 (February 2012): 164–78, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00669.x.

[xviii] O. Schweiger et al., ‘Increasing Range Mismatching of Interacting Species under Global Change Is Related to Their Ecological Characteristics’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 21, no. 1 (2012): 88–99, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00607.x.

[xix] Jan Hanspach et al., ‘Host Plant Availability Potentially Limits Butterfly Distributions under Cold Environmental Conditions’,Ecography 37, no. 3 (1 March 2014): 301–8, doi:10.1111/j.1600-0587.2013.00195.x.

Indicator specification and metadata

Indicator definition

  • Projected spatial mismatches of the Portuguese Dappled White butterfly and its host plants


  • Suitable area [dimensionless]

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.

The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.


Methodology for indicator calculation

Ecological niche models (generalized linear models) for 36 European butterfly species and their larval host plants based on climate and land-use data were developed. The future distributional changes using three integrated global change scenarios for 2080 were projected. Observed and projected mismatches in potential butterfly niche space and the niche space of their hosts were first used to assess changing range limitations due to interacting species and then to investigate the importance of different ecological characteristics.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Available methods for incorporating species interactions, population dynamics and dispersal processes into models of range shifts are still very coarse, despite several recent approaches to incorporate these.

Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/).

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Generic metadata


DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 026
Temporal coverage:

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel

EEA Management Plan

2014 1.4.1 (note: EEA internal system)


Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years
European Environment Agency (EEA)
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Phone: +45 3336 7100