Journal of Insect Conservation

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 111–120 | Cite as

Coastal heathland succession influences butterfly community composition and threatens endangered butterfly species

  • Jens Schirmel
  • Thomas Fartmann


Succession has a strong influence on species diversity and composition of semi-natural open terrestrial ecosystems. While several studies examined the effects of succession on butterflies in grassland and forest ecosystems, the response of heathland butterflies to succession had not been investigated so far. To address this issue we sampled butterfly abundance and environmental parameters on the Baltic island of Hiddensee (NE Germany) along a gradient of coastal heathland succession from grey dunes to birch forest. Our results provide evidence that succession of coastal heathland has a strong influence on butterfly diversity, abundance, and species composition. Thereby grass and tree encroachment present the main threats for heathland butterflies. Diversity and abundance of butterflies were highest in shrub-encroached heath directly followed by early stages of coastal heathland succession (dwarf-shrub heath, grey dune). Both observed threatened species (Hipparchia semele, Plebeius argus) were negatively affected by succession: abundance decreased with increasing vegetation density (both species) and grass cover (P. argus); consequently, the two later successional stages (shrub, birch forest) were not occupied. Our findings highlight the importance of the preservation of early stages of coastal heathland succession for endangered butterfly species. For coastal heathland management we therefore suggest to maintain early successional stages by sheep grazing, mowing or, in case of high nutrient contents, intensive techniques such as sod-cutting or choppering. To a lower extend shrub-encroached sites should also be present, which might be beneficial for overall species richness.


Calluna vulgaris Grass encroachment Hipparchia semele Land-use change Plebeius argus Vegetation structure 



We thank Jasmin Mantilla-Contreras for help with the field work and the national park ‘Vorpommersche Boddenlandschaft’ for the permission to conduct the study in the protected area. The study was partly funded by the ‘Bauer-Hollmann-Stiftung’. Moreover, we a grateful to two anonymous referees for valuable comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biological Station of HiddenseeUniversity of GreifswaldIsle of HiddenseeGermany
  2. 2.Institute for Environmental SciencesUniversity of Koblenz-LandauLandauGermany
  3. 3.Department of Community Ecology, Institute of Landscape EcologyUniversity of MünsterMünsterGermany
  4. 4.Ecology Group, Department of Biology and ChemistryUniversity of OsnabrückOsnabrückGermany

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