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B414: Brain and behavioural adaptations to high altitude environments in butterflies (Lead Supervisor: Stephen Montgomery, Zoology)

Supervisors: Stephen Montgomery (Zoology) and Chris Jiggins (Zoology

Importance of the area of research:

Brains optimise the behavioural response to external stimuli by processing environmental information in concert with an individual's internal physiological state. Brain structure and function are therefore intimately related to the environment in which an organism lives, and the behavioural strategies that they employ to maximise fitness. This ecological role is apparent when brains of diverse species are compared; across both invertebrates and vertebrates brain structure appears to have been shaped by selection to meet the sensory and behavioural demands of particular habitat. However, these studies almost exclusively focus on phylogenetic comparisons across relatively distant species. Little is known about how these neuroanatomical differences evolve, their proximate basis, how they affect behaviour, or their role in the early stages of ecological divergence. Furthermore, the central assumption of this field, that interspecific differences in brain structure are caused by selection, is poorly tested.

Project summary:

Local adaptation across environmental gradients can be an important trigger of speciation. Heliconius butterflies provide a case study in this process. Multiple ‘incipient' species in the erato clade are locally adapted to high-altitude, dry forests and are ecologically and reproductively isolated from their lowland ancestors. For example, in H. himera, local adaptation to high altitude forests includes shifts in behavioural and life history traits, and changes in brain morphology. This suggests divergence in neural and sensory systems plays an important role in local adaptation. By performing a comparative study in H. erato chestertonii, an independently evolved high altitude race, you will test for evidence of convergent shifts in brain structure, behaviour and life history, and perform experimental tests of the role of plasticity in facilitating local adaptation.

What the student will do:

The approach taken can be tailored to the particular interests of the student. The core of the project will be based on field and behavioural experiments, combined with comparative neuroanatomy, in H. erato chestertonii and closely related low-altitude populations.  The project will therefore require extended periods of fieldwork in Colombia and will be conducted in collaboration with Drs. Camilo Salazar and Carolina Pardo at the Universidad del Rosario. You will sample wild populations, collect environmental data and rear butterflies from divergent populations under standardised conditions. You will design and execute experiments to test for shifts in life history and behaviour in chestertonii and collect brain samples to test for heritable or plastic changes in brain morphology. Processing these samples will require learning core lab and microscopy skills.

Please contact the lead supervisor directly for further information relating to what the successful applicant will be expected to do, training to be provided, and any specific educational background requirements.


Arias CF, Munoz AG, Jiggins CD, Mavarez J, Bermingham E, Linares M. A hybrid zone provides evidence for incipient ecological speciation in Heliconius butterflies. Molecular ecology. 2008 Nov 1;17(21):4699-712.

Muñoz AG, Salazar C, Castano J, Jiggins CD, Linares M. Multiple sources of reproductive isolation in a bimodal butterfly hybrid zone. Journal of evolutionary biology. 2010 Jun 1;23(6):1312-20.

Montgomery SH, Merrill RM. Divergence in brain composition during the early stages of ecological specialization in Heliconius butterflies. Journal of evolutionary biology. 2017 Mar 1;30(3):571-82.

Follow this link to find out about applying for this project.

Other projects available from the Lead Supervisor can be viewed here.

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