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The role of habitat heterogeneity and reserve management in buffering butterfly species from the impacts of future climate change

Supervisors: Dr Edgar Turner, Dr Andrew Bladon


Importance of the area of research/Project summary:

The impacts of global warming on species is already clear, with changes in species’ ranges, interactions between species, and species’ declines already recorded. At the landscape scale, a key factor influencing the degree to which communities are affected by changes in temperature is the level of habitat disturbance and connectivity. At the smaller-scale within reserves, management such as creating more varied topography and vegetation structure can buffer species against the impacts of change. Such management represents a potentially low-cost but effective means for reducing biodiversity loss in the face of continued environmental change.

This project will investigate the impact of reserve management, vegetation and topography on the distribution of the larvae of different butterfly species, ability of larvae to buffer body temperature in relation to changing temperatures, and the impact of these factors on growth and survival. The project will build on an existing collaboration between the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (BCN) Wildlife Trust and the Insect Ecology Group in Cambridge that is studying these factors in relation to adult butterflies. This project will therefore be able to assess how larval buffering ability differs from that of adults, and how this affects caterpillar growth and survival. Butterflies represent an excellent taxa to investigate these issues, as they are easy to survey, have well-studied ecology and have varied ability to thermoregulate and tolerate environmental change.

What the student will be doing:

The student will carry out targeted surveys on a subset of wide ranging and habitat specialist butterfly larvae. Fine-scale temperatures in different environmental conditions will be recorded using dataloggers. Caterpillar growth and survival will be measured and temperature of caterpillars recorded using sensitive thermocouples. Students will develop skills in a range of analytical techniques relevant to the project and will also have the opportunity to liaise with conservation practitioners from the BCN Wildlife Trust and to discuss active conservation work.

The student will be supported at all stages of the project set-up, data collection, analysis and write-up. Members of the Insect Ecology Group have a wide range of experience of working on chalk grassland ecology and microclimate. The student will benefit from a strong existing collaboration with the BCN Wildlife Trust.


Suggitt, A. J. et al. Extinction risk from climate change is reduced by microclimatic buffering. Nature Climate Change 8, 713–717 (2018)

Ausden, M. Climate Change Adaptation: Putting Principles into Practice. Environ. Manage. 54, 685–698 (2014).

Turner, E. C. et al. Habitat preference and dispersal of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis lucina) on an abandoned chalk quarry in Bedfordshire, UK. J. Insect Conserv. 13, 475–486 (2008).


Equipment (from related projects and group funding) will be available to the student.