Out of your comfort zone

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Here Professor Jane Hill, Professor of Ecology at the University of York talks about her research into climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss. Professor Hill will be delivering ZSL's annual Stamford Raffles lecture.

It is often thought to be a good thing for us to push the limits of our skills and experiences beyond our usual ‘comfort zone’. Whilst this might be a good way of making sure our lives don’t get stuck in a rut, what about the comfort zones of other animals? For many species,  being outside their comfort zone is a problem - a problem brought about by the ways in which humans are affecting the world’s natural habitats and the biodiversity they contain.

Few species occur everywhere on Earth, and most animals and plants have distributions that are limited to a small part of the world according to their specific environmental requirements. Most of us probably have a temperature that is perfect for us, for which we get irritable and short-tempered if it gets too hot and humid, and miserable if it’s too wet and cold for our liking. If you fight over the setting of your heating thermostat at home, you are no doubt very aware of this. 

Other animals and plants are the same as us, and have their own set of favourable conditions where they do best. These conditions include the types of habitats where species can survive, such as woodlands or grasslands, as well as local temperature and rainfall conditions. Thus as global climates are changing, many species are shifting their distributions to track how the climate is changing.  My lab at York has been studying how fast species are shifting their ranges and whether or not species are adapting to these changing climates.

Walking transects to count butterflies
Walking transects to count butterflies

Some species are very sensitive to changes in temperature and we study butterflies which not only are beautiful and highly charismatic species but just about everything they do is dependent on the weather, making them sensitive indicators of climate change.  

Ever since Victorian times, the British public has been enthusiastically recording the butterflies they see around them and so in the UK we have a globally unique long-term data set of millions of records to help us understand how butterflies are faring in Britain. My research group has used this information to show where butterflies are disappearing from sites that are getting far too hot and dry for them, as is the case for some of our northern butterflies. We also use this information to map how some other species are heading northwards or uphill as the previously cold conditions are now becoming suitable for them.

One very impressive example in the UK is the comma butterfly, that used to occur only around the Wye valley on the border between Wales and England, but now has spread north and colonised most of England and southern Scotland.

Other species are also doing well, but finding it hard to colonise new sites if the habitats they need are fragmented and too isolated to reach. The speckled wood butterfly is spreading slowly in parts of its range where there is little of its preferred habitat – woodland – in the landscape. This has led to conservation recommendations to create habitat corridors to help species move to new locations.

Speckled wood butterfly
The Speckled wood butterfly is spreading its range northwards in Britain but its expansion is slowed up in areas where there is very little woodland left.

2016 is going to be the hottest year on record. Whilst this may be good news for species who like it hot, it will be bad news for those for whom the conditions become inhospitable. My research is focussed on helping species to spread and colonise areas that become favourable whist trying to slow up declines and local extinctions where conditions have deteriorated. Much of this work takes me out of my comfort zone!       

Professor Jane Hill to lecture at ZSL

Jane Hill

  • Jane will be talking about her research, climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss at our annual Stamford Raffles lecture.

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