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Evolutionary responses of insects to the Anthropocene

   Department of Biology

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  Prof Tim Barraclough  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project is part of the DPhil in Biology at the University of Oxford

Humans have altered global environments in many ways, such as converting natural habitats into farmland and exposing organisms to synthetic chemicals that have been unencountered previously since life began. These changes have accelerated in the last 100 years or so. As well as causing ecological responses in population density and shifts in species distributions, the new environments of the Anthropocene are altering selection pressures and evolution.

When faced with rapid or extreme shifts in conditions, not all species can adapt quickly enough. Evolutionary theory predicts which traits and conditions should determine the capacity of a population to adapt to rapid environmental change. Yet, despite many documented cases of species adapting to human impacts, we lack comprehensive evidence to put theory into practise, to predict evolutionary winners and losers, and to design management practises to maximise evolutionary resilience.

This project aims to identify the determinants of adaptability to environmental changes during the Anthropocene in insects. Insects are reported to be in decline globally because of human impacts, but at the same time many have large population sizes and rapid generation times that convey rapid evolutionary rates. For example, many insect pests adapt quickly to control measures such as pesticides, making it hard to control them. What ecological and genetic traits predispose some insect species to rapid evolution and others to population decline?

This project will adopt a comparative approach to investigate evolutionary dynamics of insect communities to ongoing agricultural and climatic change. Specifically, it will use historical collections and genome sequencing to reconstruct evolution of insect communities in the UK over the last 50 years. The project will search for predictors of evolutionary winners and losers, and test for parallel responses among distantly related species to identify any shared responses to climatic and chemical changes over this time.

Building on a core of evolutionary genomics, the student will also develop a second approach to the problem, depending on their interests and desired skill set. For example, this could involve theoretical modelling of evolutionary responses in insect food webs and the effects of management interventions, experimental tests of phenotypic selection in the field, or experimental evolution with short-lived insects in the laboratory.

You would join a diverse and friendly team applying evolutionary genomics, experimental evolution and theory to a range of different organisms (insects, fungi, bacteria and bdelloid rotifers). The group is interested in understanding the interactions between evolution and biodiversity. We often collaborate with biodiversity institutions such as Rothamsted Research, CABI, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Within the Department of Biology, you would interact with lots of students and staff working with similar interests, including insect genomes as part of the Darwin Tree of Life project led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

This project is part of the Evolutionary Biology theme in the Department of Biology.


This project is part of the DPhil in Biology programme, and is not a funded course at the University of Oxford, as such, students are expected to explore options for funding. However, we anticipate being able to offer around 6 full graduate scholarships to incoming DPhil Students in 2023-24

You will be automatically considered for the majority of Oxford scholarships, if you fulfil the eligibility criteria and submit your graduate application by 20 January 2023. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic achievement and potential to excel as a DPhil student. 

For further details about searching for funding as a graduate student visit the University’s dedicated Funding pages.


For full entry requirements and eligibility information, please see the main admissions page.

How to apply

The deadline for applications for 2023-2024 entry is midday 20 January 2023. We will continue to accept applications submitted after 20 January 2023, but these late applications will not be considered for scholarship funding.

You can find the admissions portal and further information about eligibility and the DPhil in Biology Programme at the University's graduate admissions page.

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