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Adaptations to life at high altitude in Canary Island bats

Project Description

Programme website:

Project Rationale:
Global climate change is predicted to result in species shifting their ranges up latitudinal and altitudinal gradients to track suitable climatic conditions. However, although the temperature may become suitable, high altitude hypoxia (oxygen deficiency) may limit the ability of lowland species to survive at higher altitudes. Physiological and genetic adaptations to high altitude environments have been identified in humans and other vertebrates[1]. Yet little is known about adaptive mechanisms for hypoxia tolerance and whether these are driven by genetic adaptations or phenotypic plasticity.

Islands are living laboratories that can give insights into evolutionary processes like adaptation and speciation. The Canary Islands have outstanding biodiversity with high levels of endemism and diverse ecosystems distributed across altitudinal gradients, rising to 3718m[2]. Bats represent the majority of native mammals on oceanic islands. The Canary Islands are home to seven bat species, two of which are endemic. Flight offers bats greater dispersal abilities and enables them to colonise steep altitudinal gradients, but it involves high energetic costs, which means that bats cannot compensate for hypoxic conditions through suppressing metabolism to reduce oxygen supply[1]. Previous studies identified climate-driven genetic adaptations in bats[3], but it is unknown how they cope with high altitude hypoxia.

This PhD studentship will combine a variety of genomic, ecological and modelling approaches to identify adaptations to high altitude in Canary Island bats and extrapolate the effect of these adaptations on species distributions, population structure and movement processes. The PhD candidate will develop the following objectives:

1. Identify morphological, physiological and genomic adaptations to high altitude. Combine field sampling of biometric and physiological traits in bat species found across the altitudinal gradients with whole transcriptome sequencing (RNA-seq) and candidate gene approach to discern the genetic basis of high altitude adaptations.

2. Determine the effect of island isolation, altitude and land cover on movement patterns and population structure of island bats. Use the Landscape Genetics approach to relate the spatial distribution of genetic variation with the effect of landscape elements on movement, and identify principle barriers to gene flow in highland versus lowland bats.

3. Model the effects of adaptations, abiotic conditions and biotic interactions on the present and future distribution of Canary Island bats. Incorporate data on high altitude adaptations (Objective 1), landscape barriers to movement (Objective 2) and future climate change projections into community-level ensemble ecological niche modelling.

Ethics statement:
Bats will be caught under licences from the local authorities and under the supervision of a local bat researcher with extensive experience of working with bats and of the study area. The student will be trained in catching, handling and sampling bats by Razgour, who worked with bats for >13 years and holds a Natural England bat licence. Bats will be caught with mist nets and hand nets, following widely used procedures and the recommendations in the JNCC Bat Workers Manual. Sampling includes the collection of blood (<2% of the bat’s body mass) and wing biopsy punches (3mm). All bats will be released immediately after processing (within 1 hour) at the place of capture to minimise disturbance. Non-target bat species will be released immediately after identification without sampling. All procedures will be carried out taking the animal welfare into consideration.

The INSPIRE DTP programme provides comprehensive personal and professional development training alongside extensive opportunities for students to expand their multi-disciplinary outlook through interactions with a wide network of academic, research and industrial/policy partners. The student will be registered at the University of Southampton and hosted at Biological Sciences. Specific training will include: ecological fieldwork methods, bat research methods, RNA and DNA extractions and quantification, bioinformatics and genomic data analysis (transcriptome assembly and annotation, differential expression analysis, SNP calling, genotype-environment associations, population genomics, landscape genetics), advanced statistics, ecological modelling and GIS.

The student will carry out fieldwork in the Canary Islands, where training will be provided in field research and trapping and non-lethal sampling of bats.

Funding Notes

You can apply for fully-funded studentships (stipend and fees) from INSPIRE if you:
Are a UK or EU national.
Have no restrictions on how long you can stay in the UK.
Have been 'ordinarily resident' in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the project.

Please click View Website for more information on eligibility and how to apply


[1] Storz JF, Scott GR, Cheviron ZA (2010) Phenotypic plasticity and genetic adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia in vertebrates. Journal of Experimental Biology, 213: 4125-4136.
[2] Fernández-Palacios JM, Whittaker RJ (2008) The Canaries: an important biogeographical meeting place. Journal of Biogeography, 35: 379-387.
[3] Razgour O, et al. (2018) An integrated framework to identify wildlife populations under threat from climate change. Molecular Ecology Resources, 18: 18-31.

How good is research at University of Southampton in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 68.62

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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