Indicator Assessment

Distribution shifts of plant and animal species

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-184-en
  Also known as: CLIM 022
Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 04 Oct 2021
23 min read
This page was archived on 04 Oct 2021 with reason: No more updates will be done
  • Observed climate change is having significant impacts on the distribution of European flora and fauna, with distribution changes of several hundred kilometres projected over the 21st century. These impacts include northwards and uphill range shifts, as well as local and regional extinctions of species.
  • The migration of many species is lagging behind the changes in climate owing to intrinsic limitations, habitat use and fragmentation, and other obstacles, suggesting that they are unable to keep pace with the speed of climate change. Observed and modelled differences between actual and required migration rates may lead to a progressive decline in European biodiversity.
  • Climate change is likely to exacerbate the problem of invasive species in Europe. As climatic conditions change, some locations may become more favourable to previously harmless alien species, which then become invasive and have negative impacts on their new environments.
  • 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.

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.

Data source:

Projected change in Bumblebee climatically suitable areas

Note: The map shows the projected change in the climatic suitable area for the Bumblebee Bombus terrestris (the largest and one of the most numerous bumblebee species in Europe) under the combined climate-land use scenario SEDG (Sustainable European Development Goal, including SRES B1) and GRAS (including SRES A2).

Past trends

A wide variety of plant and animal species in Europe have moved northwards and uphill during recent decades. Mountain top floras across Europe have shown significant changes in species composition between 2001 and 2008, with cold-adapted species decreasing and warm-adapted species increasing in number [i]. On average, most species have moved uphill. These shifts have had opposing effects on the species richness of summit floras in boreal-temperate mountain regions (+3.9 species on average) and Mediterranean mountain regions (–1.4 species) [ii]. Data from Switzerland collected over an altitudinal range of 2 500 m over a short period of eight years (2003–2010) revealed significant shifts in communities of vascular plants towards warm-dwelling species at lower altitudes. However, rates of community changes decreased with altitude [iii]. There is further evidence of increases in the distribution range due to climate change for several plant species [iv].

The distributions of many terrestrial animals have recently shifted to higher elevations. In Britain, the distributions of spiders, ground beetles, butterflies, grasshoppers and allies have 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, but with substantial variability across and within taxonomic groups [v]. These range shifts are partly attributable to observed changes in climatic conditions, but land-use and other environmental changes also play a role [vi]. A study in the Netherlands covering the period between 1932 and 2004 found that half of the investigated bird species were overwintering significantly closer to their breeding site than in the past, most likely due to warmer winters [vii]. A long-term trend analysis of 110 common breeding birds across Europe (1980–2005, 20 countries) showed that species with the lowest thermal maxima showed the sharpest declining trends in abundance [viii]. In other words, cold-adapted species are losing territory most quickly.

Observations for most species show an expansion at the leading edge (i.e. by expanding the range northwards and/or uphill), whereas there is less evidence for contractions at the trailing edge (i.e. at the southern margins). However, bumblebees, which are an important pollinator for agricultural and natural ecosystems, showed a different response to the observed warming in recent decades. They suffered from strong range contractions at their southern margins of up to 300 km in southern Europe during the last 40 years, but failed to expand northwards, thereby experiencing a substantial compression of their range [ix]. The Community Temperature Index (CTI) is a measure of the rate of change in community composition in response to temperature change. As the CTI increases, butterfly communities become increasingly composed of species associated with warmer temperatures. For example, the CTI of butterfly communities across Europe has increased by 0.14 °C per decade from 1970 to 2007. However, temperature has increased by 0.39 °C per decade in the same period, that is, almost three times faster than the butterfly community could move northwards [x]. 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 (see Figure 1) [xi].

A comprehensive review study on amphibians and reptiles found that 20 out of the 21 amphibian and four out of the five reptilian species assessed in Europe were already affected by climate change. The reported effects were negative, mainly through population declines, reductions in habitat suitability, and reduced survival and range sizes, in more than 90 % for amphibians and in more than 60 % for reptiles [xii]. A review study on ducks (Anatidae), which are major elements of wetland biodiversity, reports shifts in winter distribution range and phenology. Nevertheless, a phenological mismatch between the periods of peak energy requirements for young and peak seasonal food availability was not found in general with regard to ducks [xiii].

The contribution of the Arctic 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 seem to have declined since the mid-1980s [xiv].

There is some evidence that climate change has already played a role in the spread of alien animal species in Europe.


The observed northwards and uphill movement of many plant and animal species is projected to continue in the current century. Threatened endemic species with specific requirements of the ecotope or a small distribution range will generally be at greatest risk, in particular if they face migration barriers [xv].

A modelling study comprising 150 high-mountain plant species across the European Alps projects average range size reductions of 44–50 % by the end of the 21st century [xvi]. An assessment of the impacts of climate change on 2 632 plant species across all major European mountain ranges under four future climate scenarios projected that habitat loss by 2070–2100 will be greater for species distributed at higher elevations [xvii]. Depending on the climate scenario, up to 36–55 % of Alpine plant species, 31–51 % of sub-Alpine plant species and 19–46 % of montane plant species are projected to lose more than 80 % of their suitable habitat. Nevertheless, at the finer scale, microclimate heterogeneity may enable species to persist under climate change in so called micro-climatic refugia [xviii]. A Europe-wide study of the stability of 856 plant species under climate change indicated that the mean stable area of species decreases significantly in Mediterranean scrubland, grassland and warm mixed forests [xix]. The rate of climate change is expected to exceed the ability of many plant species to migrate, especially as landscape fragmentation may restrict movement [xx]. A recent study has analysed the likely shifts in distribution for 3 048 plants and animals in England. Of those species, 640 (21 %) were classified as being at high risk owing to the loss of substantial parts of their current distributions as a result of a 2 °C rise in global temperatures [xxi].

Animals generally have a greater capacity than plants to escape unfavourable climatic conditions because of their greater mobility, but they are also affected by climate change. 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 [xxii]. Another study simulated phylogenetic diversity for plants, birds and mammals in an ensemble of forecasts for 2020, 2050 and 2080 [xxiii]. The results show that the tree of life faces a homogenisation across the continent as a result of a reduction in phylogenetic diversity in southern Europe (where immigration from northern Africa was not considered) and gains in high latitudes and altitudes. The limited dispersal ability of many reptiles, amphibians and butterflies, combined with the fragmentation of habitats, is very likely to reduce and isolate the ranges of many of those species [xxiv]. A study on the effects of projected climate change on 181 terrestrial mammals in the Mediterranean region projected average declines in species’ ranges between 11 and 45 %, depending on the climate scenario and assumptions regarding dispersal [xxv]. 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 [xxvi].

A comprehensive assessment simulated the current climatic niche and future climatically suitable conditions for almost all European bumblebee species based on over one million records from the STEP project and three climate change scenarios for the years 2050 and 2100 (see Figure 2). The number of species on the verge of extinction by 2100 ranges from three (5 % of assessed species) under the lowest climate scenario to 25 (45 % of species) under the highest scenario; under the highest scenario, 53 out of 56 assessed species (95 %) would lose the main part of their suitable habitat [xxvii]. The risk of exposure to extreme climates was investigated using four global circulation model outputs and three emissions scenarios. In total, 1 149 species were simulated (104 amphibians, 248 reptiles, 288 mammals and 509 breeding birds). The results showed that the main hotspots of biodiversity for terrestrial vertebrates may be significantly influenced by climate change, with a regional hotspot in the Mediterranean [xxviii].

In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, warmer and wetter future conditions allow a considerable number of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds to expand their distribution range. However, various species (especially habitat specialists) are expected to contract their range over time. Furthermore, a number of new species are predicted to be able to invade the region, altering community composition and biotic interactions in ways difficult to anticipate [xxix].

As the climatic conditions of some locations in Europe change, they may become more favourable to the establishment and survival of alien species, making native species, communities and ecosystems more vulnerable [xxx]. On the other hand, climate change may also offer some opportunities to control alien species that are predicted to suffer from climate change. Whereas some components of global change, such as rising CO2, usually promote invasion, other components, such as changing temperature and precipitation, can help or hinder plant invasion. Therefore, in some cases climate change can offer unprecedented opportunities for restoration of species distribution.

[i] Michael Gottfried et al., ‘Continent-Wide Response of Mountain Vegetation to Climate Change’,Nature Climate Change 2, no. 2 (February 2012): 111–15, doi:10.1038/nclimate1329.

[ii] Harald Pauli et al., ‘Recent Plant Diversity Changes on Europe’s Mountain Summits’,Science 336, no. 6079 (20 April 2012): 353–55, doi:10.1126/science.1219033.

[iii] T. Roth, M. Plattner, and V. Amrhein, ‘Plants, Birds and Butterflies: Short-Term Responses of Species Communities to Climate Warming Vary by Taxon and with Altitude’,PLoS ONE 9, no. 1 (2014): e82490, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0082490.

[iv] S. Berger et al., ‘Bioclimatic Limits and Range Shifts of Cold-Hardy Evergreen Broad-Leaved Species at Their Northern Distributional Limit in Europe’,Phytocoenologia 37, no. 3–4 (2007): 523–539, doi:10.1127/0340-269X/2007/0037-0523; G.R. Walther et al., ‘Palms Tracking Climate Change’,Global Ecology and Biogeography 16, no. 6 (2007): 801–809, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2007.00328.x; S. Pompe et al., ‘Modellierung Der Auswirkungen Des Klimawandels Auf Die Flora Und Vegetation in Deutschland’, BfN-Skripten 304 (Bonn: Bundesamt für Naturschutz, 2011),

[v] I-Ching Chen et al., ‘Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming’,Science 333, no. 6045 (19 August 2011): 1024–26, doi:10.1126/science.1206432.

[vi] 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): 777–795, 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, no. 1 (2012): 88–99, doi:10.1111/j.1466-8238.2010.00607.x.

[vii] Marcel E Visser et al., ‘Climate Change Leads to Decreasing Bird Migration Distances’,Global Change Biology 15, no. 8 (1 August 2009): 1859–65, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.01865.x.

[viii] FRÉDÉRIC Jiguet et al., ‘Population Trends of European Common Birds Are Predicted by Characteristics of Their Climatic Niche’,Global Change Biology 16, no. 2 (1 February 2010): 497–505, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.01963.x.

[ix] Jeremy T. Kerr et al., ‘Climate Change Impacts on Bumblebees Converge across Continents’,Science 349, no. 6244 (7 October 2015): 177–80, doi:10.1126/science.aaa7031.

[x] C.A.M. van Swaay et al., ‘Butterfly Monitoring in Europe: Methods, Applications and Perspectives’,Biodiversity and Conservation 17, no. 14 (2008): 3455–3469, doi:10.1007/s10531-008-9491-4.

[xi] Vincent Devictor et al., ‘Differences in the Climatic Debts of Birds and Butterflies at a Continental Scale’,Nature Climate Change 2, no. 2 (February 2012): 121–24, doi:10.1038/nclimate1347.

[xii] Maiken Winter et al., ‘Patterns and Biases in Climate Change Research on Amphibians and Reptiles: A Systematic Review’,Royal Society Open Science 3, no. 9 (1 September 2016): 160158, doi:10.1098/rsos.160158.

[xiii] Matthieu Guillemain et al., ‘Effects of Climate Change on European Ducks: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know?’,Wildlife Biology 19, no. 4 (December 2013): 404–19, doi:10.2981/12-118.

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

[xv] T. Dirnböck, F. Essl, and W. Rabitsch, ‘Disproportional Risk for Habitat Loss of High-Altitude Endemic Species under Climate Change’,Global Change Biology 17, no. 2 (2011): 990–996, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2010.02266.x.

[xvi] Stefan Dullinger et al., ‘Extinction Debt of High-Mountain Plants under Twenty-First-Century Climate Change’,Nature Climate Change 2, no. 8 (6 May 2012): 619–22, doi:10.1038/nclimate1514.

[xvii] Robin Engler et al., ‘21st Century Climate Change Threatens Mountain Flora Unequally across Europe’,Global Change Biology 17, no. 7 (1 July 2011): 2330–41, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2010.02393.x.

[xviii] D. Scherrer and C. Körner, ‘Topographically Controlled Thermal-Habitat Differentiation Buffers Alpine Plant Diversity against Climate Warming’,Journal of Biogeography 38, no. 2 (2011): 406–16, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02407.x.

[xix] Rob Alkemade, Michel Bakkenes, and Bas Eickhout, ‘Towards a General Relationship between Climate Change and Biodiversity: An Example for Plant Species in Europe’,Regional Environmental Change 11 (1 March 2011): 143–50, doi:10.1007/s10113-010-0161-1.

[xx] 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.

[xxi] J. W. Pearce-Higgins et al., ‘Research on the Assessment of Risks & Opportunities for Species in England as a Result of Climate Change’, Natural England Commissioned Reports (London: Natural England, 2015),

[xxii] Irina Levinsky et al., ‘Potential Impacts of Climate Change on the Distributions and Diversity Patterns of European Mammals’,Biodiversity and Conservation 16, no. 13 (6 June 2007): 3803–16, doi:10.1007/s10531-007-9181-7.

[xxiii] W. Thuiller et al., ‘Consequences of Climate Change on the Tree of Life in Europe’,Nature 470, no. 7335 (2011): 531–534, doi:10.1038/nature09705.

[xxiv] M. B Araújo, W. Thuiller, and R. G Pearson, ‘Climate Warming and the Decline of Amphibians and Reptiles in Europe’,Journal of Biogeography 33, no. 10 (1 October 2006): 1712–28, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2699.2006.01482.x; R. Hickling et al., ‘The Distributions of a Wide Range of Taxonomic Groups Are Expanding Polewards’,Global Change Biology 12, no. 3 (2006): 450–455, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2006.01116.x; J. Settele et al., ‘Climatic Risk Atlas of European Butterflies’, Biorisk 1 — Special Issue (Sofia: Pensoft, 2008),

[xxv] 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, no. 1578 (27 September 2011): 2681–92, doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0121.

[xxvi] Brian Huntley et al., ‘Potential Impacts of Climatic Change on European Breeding Birds’,PLoS ONE 3, no. 1 (16 January 2008): e1439, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001439.

[xxvii] Pierre Rasmont et al., ‘Climatic Risk and Distribution Atlas of European Bumblebees’,BioRisk 10 (18 February 2015): 1–236, doi:10.3897/biorisk.10.4749.

[xxviii] Luigi Maiorano et al., ‘Threats from Climate Change to Terrestrial Vertebrate Hotspots in Europe’,PLoS ONE 8, no. 9 (16 September 2013): e74989, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074989.

[xxix] Anouschka R. Hof, Roland Jansson, and Christer Nilsson, ‘Future Climate Change Will Favour Non-Specialist Mammals in the (sub)Arctics’,PLOS ONE 7, no. 12 (20 December 2012): e52574, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052574.

[xxx] EC, ‘LIFE and Invasive Alien Species’ (Luxembourg: European Commission (DG ENV), LIFE Nature, 2014).

Supporting information

Indicator definition

  • Trend in thermophilic species in bird and butterfly communities
  • Projected change in climatically suitable areas for bumblebees


  • Trend of the Community Temperature Index (CTI, semi-qualitative)
  • Change in suitability (dimensionless)


Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    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 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss
  • 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

The Community Temperature Index (CTI) is a measure of the rate of change in community composition in response to temperature change.

Species distribution observations and models (also known as habitat models, niche models or envelope models) have been used to calculate the indicator.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

No methodology references available.



Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

Observing range shifts (and projecting responses to climate change) crucially depends on good distributional data, which is better for popular groups of species than for other species. There are also large regional differences in the quality of observational data, with better data generally available in northern and western Europe than in southern Europe. As neither data quality nor lack of data is properly recorded, the true quality of projections of range shifts, as well as the likelihood of unobserved range shifts, is largely unknown. Some studies found unexpected results, such as range shifts of terrestrial plants towards lower elevations, which may be explained by the characteristics of local climate change or by taxonomic and methodological shortfalls identified in the simulation of range shifts.

Species distribution models (also known as habitat models, niche models or climate envelope models) suffer from a variety of limitations because species are currently not in equilibrium with climate, and because species dispersal and biotic interactions are largely ignored. Furthermore, climate change projections for Europe include climate conditions for which no analogue climate was available for the model calibration. Some models still do not include such climates, which may lead to misinterpretations of projected changes.

When documenting and modelling changes in soil, biodiversity and forest indicators, it is not always feasible to track long-term changes (signal) given the significant short-term variations (noise) that may occur (e.g. seasonal variations of soil organic carbon as a result of land management). Therefore, detected changes cannot always be causally attributed to climate change. Human activity, such as land use and management, can be more important for terrestrial ecosystem components than climate change, both for explaining past trends and for future projections.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CLIM 022
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 4 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage