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Adapt or die - how do animals respond to changing environments?

Dr Elizabeth Duncan (SoB), Steve Sait (SoB)

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How do animals respond to new or changing environments? Why is it that some species can adapt or move, while others face extinction?

Understanding how animals respond and adapt to new and changing environments is a fundamental question in ecology, conservation biology, and evolution. Climate change and the resulting increased frequency of extreme weather events means that being able to understand and ultimately predict how some species can adapt while others face extinction is of paramount importance.

Whilst there is ample evidence that individual species have adapted to recent environmental change, of particular concern is how trophic interactions, such as host-parasitoid interactions, will respond. This is because trophic interactions underpin food web structure and are key for ecosystem functioning. In this project we will examine the short and long-term effects of environmental variations (e.g. temperature) that mimic climate change on a well-established trophic system, the Indian meal moth (Plodia interpunctella) and the parasitic wasp (Venturia cansecens) [e.g. 1]

Insects are the most abundant and species rich group of animals on the planet. They have important roles in all terrestrial and many aquatic ecosystems and a critical for ecological functions including pollination and pest control. Insects are also incredibly important in terms of future food security as many, including Plodia are major crop pests. Ambient temperature is particularly important for ectotherms such as insects and many insect species are potentially highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and have a high risk of extinction.

The response of individual species to environmental change can potentially depend on a number of factors including; generation time, population size, traits and life stages (e.g. juvenile vs. adult) that are affected. This makes some species more vulnerable to extinction for a given type of environmental change than others. However, little is known about how animals are able to adapt to new environments, and the mechanisms involved [2].

Model systems, such as Plodia, are being used to answer these fundamental questions in ecology and evolution that are extremely difficult to address in the field. Recent work in the Sait lab has shown that relatively small fluctuations in temperature causes phenotypic change in Plodia and Venturia over very short time scales, affecting overall population dynamics. Using this model system we will combine measures of host and parasitoid life history traits with molecular methods [e.g. 2, 3, 4] to understand how the host and parasitoids adapt to changing environments over both short and long-time periods.

This project will be based in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds and combines the skills of both supervisors to amalgamate ecological studies with population studies of genetic variation.

In the context of the current biodiversity crisis, slowing, and ideally halting biodiversity loss is of paramount importance. A key aspect of this is identifying factors that predict resilience of species to environmental perturbation. This project will begin to address how species adapt to short- and long-term environmental change, and whether these mechanisms can act as predictors for adaptability to global change in other species.

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1) Sait, et al., (2000), Nature. 405(6785): p. 448-50.

2) Duncan, et al., (2014), J Exp Zool B Mol Dev Evol. 322(4): p. 208-20.

3) Schield, et al., (2016), Methods in Ecology and Evolution. 7(1): p. 60-69. 4) Davey, et al., (2010), Brief Funct Genomics. 9(5-6): p. 416-23.

Related undergraduate subjects:

  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Biology
  • Ecology
  • Environmental biology
  • Evolution
  • Genetics
  • Molecular ecology
  • Zoology