Professor Chris D Thomas



2012 -   Fellow of the Royal Society
2004 - Professor Department of Biology, University of York
1999 - 2004 Professor School of Biology, University of Leeds
1995 - 1999 Research Fellow School of Biology, University of Leeds
1992 - 1995 Lecturer School of Biological Sciences, University of Birmingham
1990 - 1992 Post-doc CPB, Imperial College at Silwood Park, London
1988 - 1989 Post-doc DSIR/University of Canterbury, New Zealand
1988 PhD University of Texas at Austin, USA
1984 MSc University College of North Wales, Bangor
1981  BA Cambridge University




Chris Thomas is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, interested in the dynamics of biological change in the Anthropocene.  He works on the responses of species to climate change, habitat fragmentation, and biological invasions. He is interested in developing conservation strategies appropriate for a period of rapid environmental change. His research has concentrated on insects and insect-plant interactions, but he is interested in a wide range of taxonomic groups, especially butterflies, birds and plants.  Chris and his research group have: a) identified that climate change represents a major extinction threat to species, b) documented recent shifts in the distributions of species, including tropical insects, to higher elevations and towards the poles, and c) found that species have moved their geographic distributions furthest in places where the climate has warmed the most. He has also d) discovered that species are changing their associations with different habitat types as the climate changes, and evolving increased dispersal as they move northwards, and e) contributed to the development of conservation policies for biodiversity.

In addition to his scientific publications, Chris has been a co-editor of nine scientific journals and his work has been quoted in the media in most countries in the world. His research has influenced the development of policy in the areas of climate change and habitat fragmentation. Chris received the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London in 1998, the President’s Medal of the British Ecological Society in 2001, the Marsh Award for Conservation Biology in 2004, and the Marsh Award for Climate Change Research in 2011. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2012.

Current projects

Research in the group focuses on the ecological and evolutionary impacts of human activities on biological systems as a means to tackle both theoretical questions in ecology and issues relevant to the management of biodiversity. Please get in touch if you would like us to host your application for a fellowship in this area. Our current projects fall within the following topics.

a) The separate and combined impacts of climate change, land use patterns, non-native species and persecution on the distributions of species, and on population- and species-level extinctions.

b) Assessing how humans are affecting biodiversity patterns at different temporal and spatial scales, aiming to quantify gains in diversity as well as losses.

c) Developing conservation strategies that will be appropriate and robust in the context of climate change, the arrival of non-native species, and other environmental drivers of change.

Research group(s)

Chris and members of his research group belong to the Ecology and Evolution research focus within the Department of Biology, and also to the inter-departmental York Environmental Sustainability Institute.  Chris Thomas’ research group shares space with Prof Jane Hill’s group, supporting additional PhD students and post-docs to those listed below:




Post Doctoral Fellow Dr George Palmer Understanding why species vary so much in their rates of response to climate change, focussing on butterflies and moths. She is collaborating with Chris Thomas and Jane Hill at York, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Rothamsted Research and Butterfly Conservation.
Post Doctoral Fellow Dr Geoff Heard Developing and testing metapopulation models relevant to conservation applications. Geoff is collaborating with the University of Melbourne in Australia, and with Dr Jenny Hodgson at the University of Liverpool.
Post Doctoral Fellow Dr Kevin Walker (Botanical Society of the British Isles).  Regular visitor to the lab, where he co-supervises two current PhD students.
PhD Student Björn Beckmann The role of ecological and evolutionary processes in the range expansion of grasshoppers and crickets. Joint with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
PhD Student Alex Bell Changes to plant biodiversity in Britain. Joint with the Botanical Society of the British Isles.
PhD Student Jonathan Hiley Protected areas and range expansion. Joint with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
PhD Student Alison Jukes The establishment of non-native plant species in Britain. Joint with the Botanical Society of the British Isles.
PhD Student Louise Mair The roles of habitat availability, dispersal and abundance changes in determining range shifts. Jointly supervised by Jane Hill.
PhD Student Suzanna Mason Variation in the responses of insects to climate change. Joint with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
PhD Student Lynda Sainty The feasibility of using species-rich upland grasslands for biofuels.   Jointly supervised by Prof Simon McQueen Mason at York, and by Fera.

Available PhD research projects

1. Biodiversity under climate change: biogeography, prospects and conservation opportunities. Climate change is already, and is expected to continue to be, a major cause of changes to species’ abundances and distributions, and hence to their conservation status.  This studentship will assess the distribution of risks and benefits to species, identify areas where species are at greatest risk in GB, Europe and North Africa, and evaluate how practical conservation strategies need to be adjusted to accommodate changes and minimise risks. The student will assess whether priority species and places for adaptation are consistent between national and continental scales, how this varies with different levels of climate change, and whether impacts and adaptation options are consistent for different animal groups. The project will be a CASE studentship, co-supervised by Chris Thomas and by Dr Richard Bradbury (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) and Dr James Pearce-Higgins (British Trust for Ornithology).

2. The effects of non-native species on biodiversity patterns. Non-native species are widely regarded as threats to native biodiversity at local, regional and global scales, and invasive species have been responsible for a third or more of documented species-level extinctions. Nonetheless, the net effect of non-native species is usually to increase regional diversity – fewer than one native species dies out, on average, for each new species that is added.  The circumstances that lead to net losses and gains are poorly understood. The studentship will test how non-native species affect local diversity (alpha), differences in diversity between locations (beta diversity) and the total numbers of species in regions and globally (gamma diversity), using historical (palaeo-ecological) and recent data (e.g. Countryside Survey plots). The student will compare results for plants and vertebrates. The project will test the generality of the results by comparing the conclusions for Britain against data for at least two other regions of the world.  The project will be co-supervised by Chris Thomas and by Dr Simon Smart (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology).

3. Assessing the effectiveness of Protected Areas to conserve biodiversity under climate change. Protected Areas (PAs) have been established globally to conserve biodiversity, but more information is required to determine if PAs are correctly placed to conserve species under climate change. For example, we know that tropical species are shifting uphill to track climate, but loss of rainforest has resulted in many low-lying PAs becoming increasingly isolated. Thus, species may leave PAs at low elevation as local climates become too hot/dry, but may fail to reach PAs at higher altitudes if PAs are too isolated to be colonised. Remnants of natural habitats that remain within otherwise inhospitable agricultural landscapes (e.g. oil palm plantations) may be important ‘stepping stone’ habitats, but their role in connecting PAs has not been examined.  The aims of the project will be to a) assess the vulnerability of PAs to climate change from range shifting by species, and b) identify locations that may be particularly vulnerable to climate change (e.g. low-lying PAs with low topography), and where higher levels of protection may be advantageous (e.g. unprotected forest areas that are important corridors linking PAs). The project will be co-supervised by Jane Hill, Chris Thomas and Colin McClean at York, linked to project partner ProForest.

4. Global and local trends in illegal activity in protected areas. Direct exploitation by humans is the greatest threat to the world’s largest vertebrates. Poaching remains a significant threat in many protected areas, with millions of dollars spent on patrols to combat illegal activities. However, patrols may not be well targeted to where illegal activity occurs. Working with CASE partner the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of York is developing statistical tools to analyse spatial and temporal trends in illegal activity from these ranger-derived datasets in order to better target patrols. This project will use the new tools and apply them to datasets from protected areas across the world, allowing a global analysis. The project will answer questions including how do patterns of poaching vary regionally? Do trends in elephant and rhino poaching reflect trends in poaching? Do temporal trends in types of illegal activity reflect national activities or international markets? Can common patterns of poacher behaviour be identified across protected areas? What is the relationship between poaching and population trends? The project will be co-supervised by Colin Beale and Chris Thomas at York, and by Dr Andy Plumptre from the Wildlife Conservation Society.



Professor Chris D Thomas

Contact details

Chris D Thomas
Department of Biology (Area 18)
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: 01904 328646