How can climate change cause population extinctions?

How can climate change cause population extinctions?

Vertical Tabs

Clip Guide

Clip Guide

: Here you will find clear descriptions of what you just saw, how they know what they said they knew, why they know it to be trustworthy information. Finally we will ask the question, "So what!" and explore why the information is important.

WHAT do we know?

In this clip from a 2005 public lecture “Biodiversity and Climate Change,” biologist Camille Parmesan describes how curiosity about extinctions in relatively undisturbed areas led her to investigate the relationship between climate change and loss of populations of Edith’s Checkerspot Butterfly.  She discovered that “false springs” and “timing mismatches” associated with higher than usual temperatures were leading to die-offs in butterfly populations.  Populations at higher latitudes or elevations appeared to be less susceptible to extinction. The extinctions were population level extinctions, not the loss of the entire species.

HOW do we know?

Dr. Parmesan looked at past records and performed fieldwork herself to determine where populations of Edith’s Checkerspot Butterfly had recently gone extinct.  First, she gathered and examined data (where the butterflies were and were not, when plants known to be a food source dried up, and weather and temperature events).  Then she used the facts (what had happened) to make inferences about why she thought the populations were disappearing.

WHY can this be trusted?

In science, the credibility of an inference can be tested by looking at the procedure followed by the scientist who made the inference. Peers will ask questions such as: Does the data make sense? Could the procedure be replicated to produce the same results? Dr. Parmesan provides a clear explanation of how and why she came to her conclusion that timing mismatches were causing die offs, so other scientists can easily critique her work.


Scientific data suggest that the climate is warming. In both apparent and subtle ways, these changes in average temperature will impact where and if certain species are able to survive. Studies such as Dr. Parmesan’s can help people to understand what the direct factors in extinction are, allowing them to make better decisions about how to preserve valued species.

Printable Companion Guide: 
Further Reading
Further Reading: 

The complete video of this lecture and a full copy of the PowerPoint slides used can be found on AGCI's website.

Parmesan, Camille and Gary Yohe. 2003. "A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems.Nature: 421, 37-42. 2 January, 2003. doi:10.1038/nature01286