Testing the role of evolution in ecological resilience: investigating genomic convergence in historical and recent climate adaptation in European butterflies and moths

This project is available from the academic year 2024/25 onwards.

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation

Primary Supervisor:

Jon Bridle

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Richard Nichols

School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, QMUL

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Additional Supervisor(s):
Ilik Saccheri (University of Liverpool)
Mark Beaumont (University of Bristol)
Jane Hill (Institution)

Project Description:

Populations and ecological communities vary in their responses to climate change. Although many species have moved to higher latitudes and altitudes to track the location of suitable climates, species that depend on particular interactions with other species have often not. Instead, these species remain condemned to increasingly warm and more fragmented patches of habitat. Understanding limits to the evolution of novel biotic interactions may therefore be critical in predicting when and where ecosystems will persist under rapid environmental change.

This project tests the role of evolution in determining ecological resilience in more than 20 species of European butterflies and moths by relating shifts in their geographical distributions, food plant use and phenology since 1920, to changes in DNA sequences in museum and contemporary populations.

You will use these data to ask to what extent historical and recent evolutionary responses: (1) underlie historical and modern niche and climate shifts; (2) involve similar genomic regions across time and space and across species (“genomic convergence”); and (3) whether adaptive change is focused in regions of low recombination, or particular positions in gene networks, or across many or few genes.

The project involves collaborations with the Universities of Liverpool, Bristol, York, and with research groups asking complimentary questions in Stockholm and Melbourne. It will involve extensive training in bioinformatic and genomic analysis, and population genetics, and will ask fundamental questions about evolution that are almost as old as the museum collections that you will study.

Policy Impact of Research:

Determining the ecological and genetic factors that determine responses to environmental change, and how these depend on evolutionary responses, will allow us to identify conservation strategies to maximise population persistence in the face of climate change.

Understanding where and where the evolution of novel biotic interactions can occur (and how quickly) also helps identify which ecological communities are most threatened by global change, and to what extent evolution will save them.

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