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B415: Sensory adaptations in mimetic butterflies (Lead Supervisor: Stephen Montgomery, Zoology)

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

Importance of the area of research:

Processing sensory information from the environment is a vital aspect of any behavioural response. Divergence in the size of brain regions that process sensory information is a key axis of neural diversity, suggesting selection acts to closely match a species' sensory mechanisms to its sensory environment. The aim of this project is to understand how. There are often multiple ways for evolution to solve problems related to sensory perception. In contrasting environments selection could favour changes in peripheral morphology to regulate how environmental stimuli are captured, change the amount or tuning of receptor proteins, or how information is shared between receptors. As a result, adaptation of sensory systems has become a useful model for understanding multiple questions in evolutionary biology such as the relative roles of drift, selection and gene duplication in molecular evolution, what mechanisms produce behavioural change, how animals accommodate environmental variation, and the repeatability of evolution.

Project summary:

How do animals evolve to optimise their perception of sensory stimuli? Microhabitat partitioning between mimicry rings in Neotropical butterflies provides a new case study in sensory evolution. Species belonging to the same mimicry ring show convergence in microhabitat preference, whilst closely related species belonging to different mimicry rings diverge into distinct microhabitats, exposing closely related species to contrasting sensory environments. This dual pattern of convergence and divergence provides a range of opportunities for comparative analyses. This project will use Ithomiine butterflies as a study system to ask how species adapt to their sensory environment. For example, how does selection for sensory specialisation shape peripheral and central neural structures? And does the convergent colonisation of the same microhabitat produce the same evolutionary solutions?

What the student will do:

The project can be adapted to fit the particular interests of the student but the core of the PhD will be based around an extensive collection of ithomiine brain and tissue samples from Yasuni National Park, Ecuador. These samples will enable broad scale comparative analyses to test the link between microhabitat and the evolution of brain structure, morphology of peripheral sensory structures, and sensory receptors. This will involve using wet-lab techniques, including anti-body staining of brain samples and gene sequencing, microscopy techniques to visualise brain structure and anatomy, and computational approaches to process image data. Data analysis and hypothesis testing will make use of a range of sophisticated, phylogenetic methods. Depending on the specific aims of the project we develop there is the possibility of conducting some further field work in Ecuador.

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.


Elias, M., Gompert, Z., Jiggins, C., & Willmott, K. (2008). Mutualistic interactions drive ecological niche convergence in a diverse butterfly community. PLoS Biol, 6(12), e300.

Montgomery, S. H., & Ott, S. R. (2015). Brain composition in Godyris zavaleta, a diurnal butterfly, reflects an increased reliance on olfactory information. J. Comp. Neurol., 523(6), 869-891.

Briscoe, A.D., Macias-Muñoz, A., Kozak, K.M., Walters, J.R., Yuan, F., Jamie, G.A., Martin, S.H., Dasmahapatra, K.K., Ferguson, L.C., Mallet, J. and Jacquin-Joly, E., 2013. Female behaviour drives expression and evolution of gustatory receptors in butterflies. PLoS genetics, 9(7), p.e1003620.

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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