Dr Peter Mayhew 
Senior Lecturer


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Evolution and Ecology of Insects

Little known taxa make up the majority of species on Earth, and help determine the way planetary ecology functions. No group exemplifies this better than the insects. I am interested in understanding the origins of this diversity, in terms of its richness and phenotypic complexity, and also its significance and how to maintain it. To study origins we need to compile datasets on species’ traits, their relationship to other species and when they appeared and disappeared (Figure 1), and then interrogate them using appropriate statistical approaches.

Figure 1. A dated phylogeny of insect families used for comparative analysis of their diversity

To understand how to maintain insect diversity we need first to discover how it is spatially distributed. This means sampling insects from different environments and asking what environmental characteristics explain their distributions (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil is a biodiversity hotspot where the insect fauna is strongly determined by physical and other environmental characteristics. Understanding these determinants helps inform conservation strategies to protect them.

When species decrease in number or range, we need to understand what forces may be driving that, and what it means for humans. This involves monitoring what changes are taking place in the environment, how they might affect the species concerned, and how this might affect other species and also people (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The Dark Bordered Beauty moth is probably England’s rarest moth. It has declined extensively in range and abundance because of loss of its habitat which is also important for other species. The species is also culturally important to people in the UK because it has been the focus of natural history interest for nearly two centuries.

My overall goal is to better understand what makes the planet a diverse place, the consequences of that diversity, and whether and how we might choose to maintain it. 

Teaching and scholarship

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Appreciating and understanding living systems is a source of inspiration, and develops skills and knowledge that are sorely needed in wider society. My hope is that through developing their skills and understanding, students find inspiration and resources that will help them make a positive impact on the world now and throughout their lives.

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My teaching covers subject-specific material as well as more generic skills. My research background in the evolutionary ecology of insects has given me a broad expertise in animal behaviour, field ecology and evolutionary analysis. My teaching in these areas draws inspiration from two main sources. The first is the power of theory, in conjunction with collated datasets, to explain broad patterns in nature. The second is direct experience of the natural world. My teaching reflects this by encouraging students to observe and understand the world around them, to contemplate its meaning and significance and to apply concepts and tools that can make sense of it. I do this in the content of understanding the behaviour of animals, including humans; the interactions between organisms and environment; and large scale patterns in the history of life. I have found that being a biologist demands a unique combination of numeracy, literacy and other generic skills that is found in very few other walks of life, and this places a special responsibility for biologists to contemplate how to use them. My teaching therefore encourages personal development in these skills and using them beyond the degree.

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My tutorials under the broad heading of ‘Evolutionary Ecology’ cover a wide range of topics that have interested me in my academic life so far, from adaptation of organisms to their environment, to understanding the lives of extinct animals. As well as developing knowledge of these subjects, students develop skills such as designing experiments and conducting research, delivering a seminar, answering a question, criticising an article, and synthesizing knowledge from diverse sources. Students receive detailed feedback on the work they produce and are encouraged to understand their own development over the course of the tutorials and beyond. 

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Projects are aligned to my on-going or past research interests in ecology, evolution, animal behaviour, conservation and entomology. However, I encourage students to develop their own ideas and hypotheses and follow their own interests within the scope of the project heading as much as possible. I also welcome students with their own novel project ideas. Typically the projects involve collating data from diverse sources to test hypotheses, and develop new analytical skills. However, projects have also involved lab and field data collection. Several projects have led to publications. 

Contact details

Dr Peter Mayhew
Senior lecturer
Department of Biology (Area 18)
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: 01904 328644