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Wings of change: using museum collections to forecast insect pollinator responses to climate change

   Department of Life Sciences

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  Dr Will Pearse  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The critical role insects play in pollinating crops and wildflowers means understanding their responses to climate change is vital for predicting food security and ecosystem resilience. Populations can respond to environment variation in a number of ways, including their behaviour such as phenology (the timing of life-history events like emergence) and morphology (e.g., wing shape). Such responses can have important, cascading consequences for ecosystems, inducing mismatches in timing such as plant flowering and pollinator emergence. Yet whilst ecologists understand the significance of these consequences, work has been constrained to mostly data from the last 30-40 years. Lacking historic data about populations before climate change limits our ability to mechanistically model responses, leaving us without a longer-term context of recovery especially after ‘outlier’ years. Hence, we urgently require baseline data from the earlier part of the last century if we are to understand populations’ phenological and morphological variation before and after the recent major climate and land-use changes.

In this PhD studentship you will address this gap by studying natural history specimens collected over the past 150 years. The project will primarily assess butterfly and bee responses to climate change, but other insect pollinator taxa may be studied. To do this, you will be working with a unique and large dataset, including tens of thousands of digitised bees and hundreds of thousands of butterflies from across the UK, as well as data from over 750 natural history collections worldwide that use the Symbiota data platform. You will use specimen label information and morphometric approaches to understand functional trait responses, whilst helping to develop bioinformatic tools to gather this information. Using this data we will build mechanistic models of when and how insects can adapt to climate change without necessarily having to shift their ranges, and compare this to known species distribution changes. Ultimately the project will develop accurate forecasts of species' distributions and, critically, ecosystem service delivery, in order to help climate change mitigation planning.

This project will leverage tools already developed by the Pearse lab previously used to accurately estimate phenological observation dates from patchy collections data, and to automatically extract morphological information from images using machine learning. The student will also be supported by the Gill lab, who has been putting together the UK bee dataset and can provide trait data for many of the bee and butterfly specimens. Richard Gill, who has experience in studying the effects of environmental stressors on insect pollinator ecology, and especially understanding bee life histories, will be a co-advisor to the student. The student will also get to collaborate with other insect pollinator researchers including Dr Andres Arce, Prof. Jeff Ollerton, Dr Phillip Fenberg, and Prof. Ian Barnes.

This position is funded through Imperial College London's Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership ( If you are interested in applying, please email Will Pearse ([Email Address Removed]) with a short statement of interest and CV. The position will be closed when someone suitable applies, so apply as soon as possible.

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