Evolutionary Limits to Climate Change

Department: Biology 

Project Director: Professor Jane Hill 

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Climate change is causing the populations of some species to increase, some to remain relatively stable, and others to decline, even when the species co-exist and we might expect them to respond in the same way. This research will examine what is limiting species ability to adapt by looking at how they respond genetically, physically and behaviourally over time using historical museum specimens and new field and laboratory information. 

To plan effective conservation strategies we need to understand why species behave so differently so we can predict how they will respond in the future as the climate changes. 

We will carry out:    

  1. analysis of historical and present-day DNA from 30 species of butterflies and moths to look at the differences and similarities in their responses to climate change   
  2. experimental studies on the Speckled Wood butterfly (Parage aegeria) to find out what determines their ability to respond to climate change    
  3. modelling to investigate how genetic differences influence the responses of British butterflies and moths to past, present and future climate change 

British moths and butterflies are an ideal study group because extensive datasets allow us to document the different responses of species to climate change during the 20th century. Their annual (or faster) generations allow rapid evolutionary change and museum collections provide information on historical levels of genetic variation. We will take advantage of recent advances in genetic sequencing technology to compare the genetic variation of museum specimens with current populations of species that are either declining, stable or increasing their populations during recent climate change. We will also conduct experiments manipulating the environmental conditions during the development of Speckled wood larvae to test the potential limits of adaptation. 

This information will help us understand how species will cope with the changing climate. 

We're working with partners at the Natural History Museum, Bristol University, the University of Liverpool and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

Project Funder: NERC