In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Butterfly Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Databases
  • Diversity and Distribution
  • Early Works
  • Life History
  • Demography and Dispersal

Ecology Butterfly Ecology
Sarah E. Diamond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0127


Butterflies are charismatic and widespread, and they occur in a diversity of habitat types; because of this, they are one of the most well studied taxa ecologically. Although butterfly diversity is concentrated in the tropics, butterflies can be found everywhere except the Antarctic. Taxonomically, butterflies form a natural monophyletic group belonging to the order Lepidoptera, as do moths. Early work in the areas of systematics and mimicry made butterflies prominent model systems, and from these investigations, the field of “butterfly ecology” emerged. Research explicitly focused on the ecology of butterflies began as more descriptive endeavors, but presently, the field is firmly grounded in ecological theory. Contemporary research on butterfly ecology broadly seeks to explain the diversity and distribution of butterflies in context of environmental factors and species interactions that influence both short-term butterfly performance and longer-term population persistence. Over the past few decades, butterflies have received increasing attention as important indicator species of anthropogenic-driven changes in land use and climate.

General Overviews

Although there is a long history of examining where butterflies occur and how they interact with their environment, butterfly ecology as a named field of study is relatively nascent. Gilbert and Singer 1975 provides the first review and synthesis of butterfly ecology. A major theme of this work is that previous research in the area of butterfly ecology is largely descriptive, and current research would benefit from a greater injection of mechanism and ecological theory. Since the publication of this review, the focus on mechanism and theory in the area of butterfly ecology has grown considerably; see for example, Vane-Wright and Ackery 1984; Dennis 1992; Boggs, et al. 2003; and Settele, et al. 2009. A second recent trend is the pairing of butterfly ecology with conservation biology. With escalating anthropogenic changes to the environment, this practice has almost become routine. Although there are many examples of linking basic research on butterfly ecology with applied conservation biology, Pullin 1995 and Bonebrake, et al. 2010 provide two excellent works.

  • Boggs, C. L., W. B. Watt, and P. R. Ehrlich. 2003. Butterflies: Ecology and evolution taking flight. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A massive synthesis in an edited volume that uniquely links diverse aspects of butterfly ecology and evolution. There is a strong emphasis on conservation, with aspects that address the roles of butterflies as indicator species, and on developing conservation strategies specific to butterflies.

  • Bonebrake, T. C., L. C. Ponisio, C. L. Boggs, and P. R. Ehrlich. 2010. More than just indicators: A review of tropical butterfly ecology and conservation. Biological Conservation 143:1831–1841.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.04.044

    A broad review of butterfly ecology, with particular emphasis on tropical butterflies. This review makes the important point that while temperate butterfly species have been given more attention in the literature, butterfly diversity is much greater in the tropics.

  • Dennis, R. H. L. 1992. The ecology of butterflies in Britain. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 354.

    An integrative compilation of butterfly ecology that ranges from the ecologies of different butterfly life stages through community-level dynamics and up to butterfly ranges and distributions.

  • Gilbert, L. E., and M. C. Singer. 1975. Butterfly ecology. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 6:365–395.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Essentially the first comprehensive review of butterfly ecology as a study area. This article marks a transition point between previously descriptive work on butterfly ecology and work that is more strongly informed by ecological theory.

  • Pullin, A. S. 1995. Ecology and conservation of butterflies. London: Chapman & Hall. 363.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-011-1282-6

    Focused on the assessment and monitoring of butterflies for conservation, both of which are strongly informed by basic research on butterfly ecology.

  • Settele, J., T. Shreeve, M. Konvicka, and H. Van Dyck, eds. 2009. Ecology of butterflies in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press. 526.

    Perhaps one of the strongest integrations of ecological theory into butterfly ecology. The focus is on European butterflies, but the strong theoretical backbone makes this work very generalizable.

  • Vane-Wright, R. I., and P. R. Ackery, eds. 1984. The biology of butterflies. London: Academic Press. 429.

    An edited volume of works presented at the 1981 symposium of the Royal Entomological Society. The volume is dedicated to E. B. Ford, the founder of modern butterfly ecology. Topics are diverse and cover butterfly speciation, mimicry, migration, genetics, coevolution with plants, communication, and population dynamics.

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