Interesting Paper: Global warming and invertebrate colouring

Just now another very interesting paper has been published in Nature Communications, which was written by former colleagues of mine from the University of Marburg.

Global warming favours light-coloured insects in Europe

As we all know many insect species like butterflies, bees or dragonflies have their main activity pattern during the day due to their ectotherm thermoregulation. Body colour is an important aspect of this thermoregulation as darker ( more blackish) individuals usually heat up faster. Therefore darker insects have an advantage compared to brighter insects in cooler climates as they heat up more rapidly and can forage earlier. This pattern can be mapped on a larger scale using occurrence data and has been known as “thermal melanism hypothesis” in macroecology. The authors go a step further from here as they  not only display a new biogeographic pattern previously unknown to science ( colouring gradient of European dragonflies and butterflies from south to north), but they also demonstrate how this mechanistic link between a macroecological pattern and a functional trait can be used to forecast the effect of climate change on insects.

From Zeuss et al. (2014): Shift in colour value for (a) the raw data; (b) the phylogenetic component (P); and (c) the specific component (S). Red indicates an increase in colour lightness; blue indicates a decrease in colour lightness. The diameter of each dot indicates the extent of the shift (n=1,845). The distribution of the shifts shows for the specific component a clear trend towards higher (that is, lighter-coloured) values (peak of the distribution positive; zero indicated by black line). The phylogenetic component suggests that the shifts in colour lightness have a strong phylogenetic background leading to a complex geographic mosaic in the response of assemblages to climate change. The inserted histograms show the mean change in colour lightness calculated for 1,000 alternative phylogenetic trees and are positive throughout, indicating that uncertainties in the phylogenetic hypotheses are unlikely to affect our conclusion of a general shift towards lighter assemblages. The distributional information used in the analysis is often based on a large time span, that is, the distributional information published in 1988 summarizes data until that year using information even from the beginning of the twentieth century. Rugs at the abscissa indicate observed values.

Possible critics: A definite next step in the analysis would be to include real measurements of optical colour rather than RGB values of scanned pictures. The colour values used in this study were all derived from scientific taxonomic drawings of those insects and thus biased by subjectivity of the respective artist. Nevertheless this bias should be consistent (if the same artist has sketched the images) so it should not influence the colouring gradient.  It is also interesting to note that many insects ( I know this for instance from my work with bugs and hoverflies) can adapt their body colouring to their habitat or differ quite a lot within a population. Differing melanism in body color and wing colouration might be related to the climatic niche they occur in, but the insects themselves might also possess phenotypic plasticity to adapt for instance to different habitats and background (Hochkirch et al. 2008). This pattern certainly needs more investigations in the future.

The article has been published as open access paper, so give it a try 😉

  • Hochkirch, A., Deppermann, J. and Gröning, J. (2008), Phenotypic plasticity in insects: the effects of substrate color on the coloration of two ground-hopper species. Evolution & Development, 10: 350–359.

  • Zeuss, D. et al. (2014) Global warming favours light-coloured insects in Europe. Nat. Commun. 5:3874


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PhD researcher at the University of Sussex. Interested in nature conservation, ecology and biodiversity as well as statistics, GIS and 'big data'
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