Vegetation heterogeneity caused by an ecosystem engineer drives oviposition-site selection of a threatened grassland insect
1. The impact of climate change on the distribution, abundance, phenology and ecophysiology of species is already well documented, whereas the influence of climate change on habitat choice and utilization has received little attention. Here we report the changing habitat associations of a thermally constrained grassland butterfly, Hesperia comma, over 20 years. 2. Between 1982 and 2001-2, the optimum percentage of bare ground within habitat used for egg-laying shifted from 41% to 21%. 3. Egg-laying rates are temperature-dependent and females actively adjust microhabitat usage in response to temperature variations; relatively warmer host plants are chosen or oviposition at low ambient temperatures, and cooler host plants at high ambient temperatures. 4. Climate warming has increased the availability of thermally suitable habitat for H. comma at the cool, northern edge of the species' distribution, therefore increasing: (a) egg-laying rate and potentially the realized rate of population increase; (b) effective area of habitat patches as more microhabitats within a given vegetation fragment are now suitable for egg-laying; (c) buffering of populations against environmental variation as eggs are laid within a wider range of microhabitats; and (d) the number of habitat patches in the landscape that are currently available for colonization (including the use of more northerly facing aspects; Thomas et al., Nature, 2001, 411, 577-581). 5. Conservationists often assume the habitat requirements of a species to be constant, and manage habitats to maintain these conditions. For many species, these requirements are likely to change in response to climate warming, and care must be taken not to manage habitats based on outdated prescriptions.