FREE Virtual Study Fair | 1 - 2 March | REGISTER NOW FREE Virtual Study Fair | 1 - 2 March | REGISTER NOW

NERC E4 Inferring the role of sexual and natural selection in speciation by studying genomics of colouration in strawberry poison frogs

   School of Biological Sciences

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Dr Katerina Guschanski, Dr Simon Martin  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Interested individuals must follow the "how to apply" link on the Geosciences E4 Doctoral Training Partnership web page:


How does natural and sexual selection interact to produce biological diversity? Can different predator avoidance strategies drive speciation if they are coupled with assortative mating? We will use the charismatic strawberry poison frogs to study the genomics of these processes.

Project background

Animal populations that use different adaptive strategies are an ideal study system to uncover processes involved in early stages of speciation. The aim of this study is to understand the interplay of natural and sexual selection in generating biological diversity by using strawberry poison frogs as a study system. Theses amphibians are widely distributed in the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama and show a remarkable colour polymorphism, with up to 18 different colour morphs occurring in sympatry and allopatry. To avoid predation, the frogs adapt one of two strategies: aposematism (conspicuous warning colouration) or crypsis (inconspicuous colouration that blends in with surroundings). Because strawberry poison frog morphs mate assortatively, differences in coloration driven by natural selection (the predator avoidance strategy) may interact with sexual selection (preference for morphs of the same colour as oneself) and promote population differentiation. Thus, this study system offers a unique opportunity to investigate evolutionary forces that are at play in the early stages of speciation.

Research questions

This project will make use of genomic and transcriptomic data to study demography, population differentiation, and the genomic basis of colouration in multiple cryptic and aposematic strawberry poison frog populations. Research questions include: 

  • What is the genomic basis of crypsis and aposematism? Is colouration determined by a few loci or does it require changes in many genes? The genomics of colouration will determine the complexity of switching between predator avoidance strategies, which appear to have happened repeatedly in this species.
  • What are the underlying changes in gene expression involved in generating colour polymorphism within the different strategies? How is the colour perceived and processed?
  • Does population history/demography play a role in the predator avoidance strategy? Previous studies suggest that the variation in colouration among populations have occurred through repeated loss of aposematism. Could this loss be associated with population bottlenecks? Drift (particularly if colouration is based on few loci) or negative selection in small populations where educating predators to avoid aposematic prey is not successful, could be the driving forces.


The project relies on a comprehensive transcriptomic dataset of several frog tissues, including skin, liver, eye and brain and shotgun DNA data generated from muscle. This is primarily a computational project that will use publicly available and newly generated genomic resources to study population differentiation, population history, and gene expression. It will be conducted in collaboration with researchers in the UK, Sweden and Germany.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills. As a primarily bioinformatics project, the candidate will learn handling large datasets to answer specific biological questions. 


Applicants should have at least an upper 2.1 degree in a relevant subject (evolutionary or computational biology or a related field), be highly motivated with a keen interest for large-scale genomics/transcriptomics. Previous experience in bioinformatics, genomics, transcriptomics would be an advantage.

The School of Biological Sciences is committed to Equality & Diversity:

The “Institution Website” button on this page takes you to our Online Application checklist. Please complete each step and download the checklist which provides a list of funding options and guide to the application process.

Funding Notes

This project is eligible for the E4 Doctoral Training Partnership. The E4 projects are currently available for full NERC studentship funding which is competitive by interview to UK, EU and International applicants (The fee difference will be covered by the University of Edinburgh for successful international applicants.).
For application details see
Further details here -


Richards-Zawacki, C. L. & Cummings, M. E. Intraspecific reproductive character displacement in a polymorphic poison dart frog, dendrobates pumilio. Evolution (N. Y). 65, 259–267 (2011).
Rudh, A., Rogell, B., Håstad, O. & Qvarnström, A. Rapid population divergence linked with co- variation between coloration and sexual display in strawberry poison frogs. Evolution (N. Y). 65, 1271–1282 (2011).
Rudh, A. Loss of conspicuous coloration has co-evolved with decreased body size in populations of poison dart frogs. Evol. Ecol. 27, 755–767 (2013).
Stuckert, A. M. M. et al. Variation in pigmentation gene expression is associated with distinct aposematic color morphs in the poison frog Dendrobates auratus. BMC Evol. Biol. 19, 85 (2019).

How good is research at University of Edinburgh in Biological Sciences?

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

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

Open days

Search Suggestions
Search suggestions

Based on your current searches we recommend the following search filters.

PhD saved successfully
View saved PhDs