Skip to main content


Log in

Species richness and trait composition of butterfly assemblages change along an altitudinal gradient

  • Community ecology - Original research
  • Published:
Oecologia Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Species richness patterns along altitudinal gradients are well-documented ecological phenomena, yet very little data are available on how environmental filtering processes influence the composition and traits of butterfly assemblages at high altitudes. We have studied the diversity patterns of butterfly species at 34 sites along an altitudinal gradient ranging from 600 to 2,000 m a.s.l. in the National Park Berchtesgaden (Germany) and analysed traits of butterfly assemblages associated with dispersal capacity, reproductive strategies and developmental time from lowlands to highlands, including phylogenetic analyses. We found a linear decline in butterfly species richness along the altitudinal gradient, but the phylogenetic relatedness of the butterfly assemblages did not increase with altitude. Compared to butterfly assemblages at lower altitudes, those at higher altitudes were composed of species with larger wings (on average 9 %) which laid an average of 68 % more eggs. In contrast, egg maturation time in butterfly assemblages decreased by about 22 % along the altitudinal gradient. Further, butterfly assemblages at higher altitudes were increasingly dominated by less widespread species. Based on our abundance data, but not on data in the literature, population density increased with altitude, suggesting a reversed density–distribution relationship, with higher population densities of habitat specialists in harsh environments. In conclusion, our data provide evidence for significant shifts in the composition of butterfly assemblages and for the dominance of different traits along the altitudinal gradient. In our study, these changes were mainly driven by environmental factors, whereas phylogenetic filtering played a minor role along the studied altitudinal range.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


We thank Carmen Börschig, Bernhard Hoiß and Yu-Lung Hsieh for valuable comments on the manuscript; Bernhard Hoiß also for his help in the field and the lab; Jürgen Hensle and Peter Sonderegger for their help with the life-history traits of alpine butterflies; Julian Bittermann, Alfred Haslberger and the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Bayerischer Entomologen e.V.” for taxonomic support; Michael Vogel, Helmut Franz and the National Park Berchtesgaden for the permission to work in the national park and the owners of the study sites outside the national park for their cooperation; Elisabeth Sieger for the kind care in the research station Ramsau. This study was pursued within the framework of the joint research centre FORKAST and was funded by the “Bavarian Climate Programme 2020”.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Annette Leingärtner.

Additional information

Communicated by Konrad Fiedler.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOC 1615 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Leingärtner, A., Krauss, J. & Steffan-Dewenter, I. Species richness and trait composition of butterfly assemblages change along an altitudinal gradient. Oecologia 175, 613–623 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: