Climate Change and Insectivore Ecology


The impacts of climate change on natural populations are only beginning to be understood. Although some important changes are already occurring, in the future these are predicted to be more substantial and of greater ecological significance. Insects are a key taxonomic group for understanding the ecological impacts of climate change, due to their responsiveness to environmental change and importance as food for other organisms. Insects are highly sensitive to rising temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns and erratic weather conditions, driving rapid short‐term variations in their abundance, mobility, distribution and phenology. Such variations represent changes in their availability as prey to insectivores, a diverse range of insect‐eating animals that include mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds. The impacts of these changes on the ecology of insectivores are complex and include population increases or decreases, broad‐scale shifts in distribution, and changes in behavioural traits such as foraging strategy, investment in parental care, and the timing of breeding and migration. Although some insectivorous species are able to respond to – and even benefit from – climate change, those that fail to respond appropriately may struggle to reproduce, disperse and survive, leading to population decline and ultimately, to extinction.

Key Concepts

  • Insects are a key taxonomic group in most terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems, providing an important trophic resource for insectivores.
  • Climate change is already causing major shifts in the distribution, phenology, behaviour, abundance and diversity of insect populations, with complex consequences for insectivores.
  • Climate change may benefit some insectivores by increasing food availability and providing more suitable conditions for reproduction.
  • Specific benefits to insectivores include earlier parturition, faster development of juveniles and range expansion.
  • Warmer temperatures may also cause negative impacts on insectivores, through more frequent and intense heat waves and reduced water availability in arid environments.
  • The negative impacts are expected to be more severe for taxa that are less able to disperse or migrate to escape unfavourable conditions, and thus less able to shift range to track the changing conditions.
  • The timing of biological events (phenology) will be affected – primarily by advancing the dates at which insects become active in spring and extending the length of the active season of insects in temperate and boreal regions.
  • Important gaps in our knowledge remain, for example despite the large biomass and species richness of insects in the tropics the impacts of climate change on tropical insectivores remain largely unknown.

Keywords: insectivore ecology; climate change; phenology; trophic cascade; trophic mismatch

Figure 1. Myotis bat species are predicted to suffer from significant declines in breeding success under increases in climate warming and reduced water availability. Reproduced with permission from Adams and Hayes . © John Wiley and Sons.
Figure 2. Mapped habitat suitability change of Pipistrellus nathusii across the UK from 1980 to 2080. Change is based on actual climatic change from 1980 to 2000 based on UK Meteorological Office climate data ( The projected suitability change from 2020 to 2080 is based on the CGCM3 climate model ( Shaded areas have a suitability greater than 0.65. The records prior to each date are represented in black on the corresponding map (1980, 1990, 2000), with records prior to 2010 shown on the habitat suitability map for 2020. Reproduced with permission from Lundy et al. . © John Wiley and Sons.
Figure 3. Relative mortality in great tit (Parus major L.) and coal tits (Parus ater L.) is lower in earlier fledging individuals. Data from 1995 (circles), 1996 (squares) and 1997 (triangles). Reproduced with permission from Naef‐Daenzer et al., . © John Wiley and Sons.


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Further Reading

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Thomas RJ , Vafidis JO and Medeiros RJ (2017) Climatic impacts on invertebrates as food for vertebrates. In: Johnson SN and Jones TH (eds) Global Climate Change and Terrestrial Invertebrates, pp. 295–316. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Tomotani BM , Ramakers JJC and Gienapp P (2016) Climate Change Impacts: Birds. In: eLS. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020484.pub2.

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Vafidis, Jim, Smith, Jeremy, and Thomas, Robert(Jan 2019) Climate Change and Insectivore Ecology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028030]