Seasonal variation in the niche, habitat availability and population fluctuations of a bivoltine thermophilous insect near its range margin
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We investigated the niche requirements of the summer and autumn/spring generations of the bivoltine butterfly, Polyommatus bellargus Rott., and their implications for population dynamics at sites occurring near its northern range margin. The larvae of this species are sedentary, and the turf height and shelter of Hippocrepis comosa foodplants selected for egg-laying accurately predict larval distributions within United Kingdom (UK) sites. We found a significant shift between the plants used for egg-laying in each generation, with the niche occupied by summer-feeding larvae being broader and different to the autumn one. Measurements of soil temperature confirmed that the short, sheltered foodplants selected by ovipositing females in autumn placed the autumn/spring-feeding generation of larvae in the warmest available microclimates within sites. In late spring, egg-laying females avoided the hottest spots but extended egg-laying into taller, less sheltered (relatively cool) turf where the microclimate was similar to that experienced by autumn/spring-feeding larvae. Using each generations' definition of niche requirement, we analysed surveys of foodplant populations available on 24 UK sites for P. bellargus, and estimated that nearly twice as many plants were available to the summer-feeding larvae compared to those feeding in the autumn. Annual adult population counts match these seasonal differences in site carrying capacity; first generation counts (from autumn-laid eggs) were generally half as abundant as in the second generation, and more variable. These results suggest that the seasonal cycle of niche switches represents an annual (autumn-spring) bottleneck for populations of this butterfly at its northern range margin. Under climate warming we predict that the inter-generational difference in niche availability, carrying capacity and population size will be reduced. We recommend revised management requirements for this threatened species under current and predicted climates in northern Europe.