Influence of canopy structural complexity on urban woodland butterfly species richness

Neal, Willow; Araya, Yoseph and Wheeler, Philip M. (2024). Influence of canopy structural complexity on urban woodland butterfly species richness. Journal of Insect Conservation (early access).



As urban land use expands, understanding the conservation of biodiversity in urban settings becomes increasingly important. Urban areas contain a wide range of remnant natural, semi-natural and anthropogenic woodlands but the biodiversity of these woodlands is not well studied. Urban woodlands are usually constrained in size and subject to management which may not be focused on promoting biodiversity. As a habitat of critical importance, the characteristics of urban woodlands need to be better understood to maximise their biodiversity within a limited footprint in the urban landscape. We used repeat line-transect surveys and rapid woodland structure habitat assessments to investigate the habitat associations of butterflies in ten woodland patches representing a range of sizes (between 1 and 40 ha), ages and woodland characteristics in the urban habitat matrix of Milton Keynes, UK. We found that ancient woodland sites supported every species detected, but the butterfly communities of amenity and roadside woodlands had similar species richness, diversity and abundance, regardless of size. Butterfly species richness was strongly associated with both woodland area and structural complexity at a site-scale, but only with structural complexity on a transect scale. Simpson diversity showed no correlation with any variable at the site scale, but strong correlation with structural complexity on transects. Abundance only correlated with area at the site scale. Our results suggest that management techniques that introduce structural complexity within urban woodlands may be an effective way to support butterfly richness and diversity in contexts where woodland areas cannot be increased.

Plain Language Summary

Urban woodlands can provide valuable habitat for butterflies on a multitude of scales, but structure is key. There is significant value in large urban woodland patches, but similar value in smaller patches under a management regime that introduces structural complexity and thereby habitat heterogeneity. Conversely, even large woodland patches can be poor sites for butterflies if management does not lead to structural complexity. A network of structurally diverse, large and small woodland patches has the potential to support diverse woodland butterfly populations within urban landscapes, and urban ancient woodlands also present extremely valuable habitats for butterflies.

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