Professor Chris D Thomas FRS


Ecology, evolution and the conservation of biodiversity in the Anthropocene

Chris and his research group are interested in understanding how humans have transformed the biological world, and how humans might protect the world’s remaining biodiversity. His research and scientific publications fall into three main areas:

Why and how species respond to climate change. Chris was the first to estimate how climate change might endanger biodiversity at a global scale. His research group has provided evidence that species move their geographic distributions as the climate changes (YouTube interview), and they are currently evaluating distribution changes and evolution in species that are responding to climate change.

The Scotch argus butterfly has declined in northern England and parts of southern Scotland. Research aims to discover where declining northern and mountain butterfly species are likely to survive future climate change. 

Scotch Argus Butterfly

Why some species decline and disappear, but others are successful. Chris is interested in how climate change, land use change (habitat fragmentation), the arrival of non-native species (invasions) and persecution (hunting) alter the distributions of species, aiming to quantify gains in diversity as well as losses. Chris carries out research on the ecological and evolutionary rules that underpin gains in biological diversity; a radio interview with Chris Thomas describes some of the biodiversity gains that have taken place in the Anthropocene.

Contrary to the expectation that introduced species are generally harmful, the diversity of native plants usually increases in locations where there has been an increase in the diversity of non-native plants (CD Thomas & G Palmer. 2015.  PNAS 112, 4387-4392). 

Conservation strategies for a dynamic world. Chris has had strong influence on the development of policy and practical conservation strategies in the areas of climate change and habitat fragmentation. Conservation has historically attempted to reduce or halt biological change, but this approach is not viable during a period of rapid environmental change. Chris and his group develop conservation strategies (including the benefits of connected landscapes, and moving species where required) that will enable species to survive climate change, biological invasions, and other environmental challenges. 

Research Group

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:

Dr George Palmer Postdoctoral Research Associate 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.

Dr Phil Platts

Postdoctoral Research Associate Modelling how populations of species survive climate change in microclimatic refugia. He is collaborating with Chris Thomas, Jane Hill and Calvin Dytham at York, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Durham University, the University of East Anglia, and Butterfly Conservation.

Dr Andy Suggitt

Postdoctoral Research Associate Surveying four northern and montane butterfly species to evaluate the importance of microclimates to their survival. He is collaborating with Chris Thomas, Jane Hill and Calvin Dytham at York, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Durham University, the University of East Anglia, and Butterfly Conservation. [Arriving February 2016].

Dr Geoff Heard

Independent Fellow Based at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Developing and testing metapopulation models relevant to conservation applications.

Dr Yvonne Collingham

Postdoctoral Research Associate Based at the University of Durham. Developing microclimate models for northern Britain, to understand the survival of species and communities that rely on cold and wet local conditions. She is collaborating with Chris Thomas, Jane Hill and Calvin Dytham at York, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the University of East Anglia, and Butterfly Conservation.

Dr Alistair Auffret

Independent Fellow Based at the Universities of Stockholm, York and Aarhus. Evaluating historical changes in plant biodiversity and distributions.

Björn Beckmann

PhD Student The role of ecological and evolutionary processes in the range expansion of grasshoppers and crickets. Joint with the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Jonathan Hiley

PhD Student Protected areas and range expansion. Joint with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Suzanna Mason

PhD Student Variation in the responses of insects to climate change. Joint with Jane Hill and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Lynda Sainty

PhD Student The feasibility of using species-rich upland grasslands for biofuels. Jointly supervised by Prof Simon McQueen Mason, and by FERA.

Christopher Wheatley

PhD Student Biodiversity under climate change: biogeography, prospects and conservation opportunities. Jointly supervised by Colin Beale, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the British Trust for Ornithology.

Alfan Rija

PhD Student Illegal activities in African National Parks. Jointly supervised by Colin Beale.

Gail Stride

PhD Student Consequences of habitat conditions and climate change on the distributions and regeneration of tree species in Bornean forest fragments. Jointly supervised by Jane Hill, Proforest and the University of Liverpool.

Roberto Padovani

PhD Student The accumulation of regional diversity in the Anthropocene: insects on plants. Jointly supervised by the Royal Horticultural Society and the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Elena Ruiz

MSc Student The consequences of species introductions and population recovery for vertebrate community structure.

Teaching and Scholarship

teaching icon
‌I teach in the areas of ecology, evolution and environmental change.  I like to help students assess information critically, generate their own ideas, and to think about the consequences of biological knowledge outside academia (contemplating how biological knowledge might affect conservation decisions). 

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‌My formal teaching concentrates on how humans have altered the biological world (the Anthropocene), covering subjects that include climate change, habitat change, the extinction of large animals, biological invasions and the conservation of biodiversity.  I consider losses of biological diversity and also gains in diversity associated with evolutionary adaptation to new environments and the arrival of species in regions where they were not previously found.

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‌My tutorials are in the area of ecology and conservation, but students are welcome to suggest any topic to discuss.  The approach is very flexible, including short presentations, debates, and discussion of the philosophy as well as practice of conservation.

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‌Undergraduate and Masters-level projects are available in any area of ecology or conservation biology.  Students usually develop analyses of data that have either been collected in the lab, or they use information from the literature and databases to tackle fundamental scientific questions.  Students learn new analytical methods during their projects, as well as gaining increased knowledge of the subject.  The intention is for each project to generate new knowledge that was not available beforehand.


PURE Staff link York Research Database‌‌‌

Visit Professor Chris D Thomas's profile on the York Research Database to:
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Professor Chris D Thomas

Contact details

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

Tel: 01904 328646