NERC GW4+ DTP Studentship: The role of life history and shifting phenology in modifying the impact of climate change on butterfly populations

University of Exeter - College of Life and Environmental Science

Main supervisor: Dr Jonathan Bennie (College of Life and Environmental Science, University of Exeter)

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

There is an urgent need to understand the responses of living organisms to climate change. In recent years many ecological responses to globally rising temperatures have been detected, including phenotypic and genotypic adaptation, shifts in species distributions, changes in population dynamics and changes in the timing (phenology) of key life-cycle events. 

However, despite clear trends in the average direction of change (notably range shifts to higher latitudes and /altitudes and earlier timing of spring events), our predictive capacity is limited, mainly because different species appear to be respondingrespond to a changing climate in contrasting ways: some seem to shift their ranges to match local conditions, others show little or no response. One barrier to our understanding of these differences is that phenological responses to climate are often studied in isolation, although in reality they interact with a changing climate to modify the exposure to climate change at key stages of the life cycle of animals and plants [1]. 

This project will combine an empirical database of citizen-science observed butterfly counts on fixed transects from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme (UKBMS), gridded daily climate data observations from the Met Office (UKCP09) and microclimate models of thermal habitat [2] with collection of field and experimental data on developmental rates in selected species to develop climate-driven dynamic models of the phenology and population dynamics of UK butterfly species. Butterflies exhibit a range of life history strategies, usually overwintering either as eggs, larvae or pupae and producing one or more reproductive adult stages per year. The timing of the strategy strategies they adopt, and plasticity and adaptation of these strategies determine the  magnitude of climate change climatic conditions that the species is exposed to during key phases; and hence the magnitude of climate change. The modelling approach will use a Bayesian framework to allow for missing data, the incorporation of experimental data to inform priors for key parameters, and uncertainty in microclimate and model parameters. Field data on larval and pupal development of selected species will be collected using mesh cages with internal temperature data loggers on slopes with contrasting thermal conditions (N/S-facing); and field experiments will be undertaken at Penryn Campus with ambient heating of outdoor cages. The ultimate aim will beis to explore how variation in life-cycle and phenology can buffer against, or amplify, the exposure to a changing climate, and highlight variation that may allow for future evolutionary responses to climate change.

Please see for full details regarding applications.

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