PHD Project

October 10, 2023

Why do populations fail to adapt to environmental change?

Fish and water scene

There are myriad examples of amazing evolutionary adaptations, from the beaks of finches to antimicrobial resistance, that have been shaped by selection arising from natural processes or the effects of humans on the environment. These have been studied in detail, and can make evolutionary adaptation seem inevitable. But natural selection is not all powerful: sometimes adaptation fails. In the face of rapid environmental change it is important that we understand why adaptation may fail, yet failures are much less well studied than successes. In this project the successful student will compare patterns of adaptation in large and small, and core and marginal populations of three-spined stickleback, a small, northern hemisphere fish with outstanding genomic resources. The student will also quantify patterns of selection in the wild and attempt to discern whether genetic rescue can alleviate the failure to adapt. The project will combine substantial existing genomic and phenotypic data from multiple populations, with fieldwork in Scotland and Portugal, and experimental crosses between populations to decipher the conditions that lead to failure to adapt. The results of the project will be highly relevant to ‘blue-skies’ understanding in evolutionary biology, as well as to conservation biology and the management of small populations.


Applicants should have an interest in evolutionary biology, ecology, genetics and/or conservation biology. An aptitude for, or desire to learn, bioinformatics, is necessary for this project. Applicants should hold a minimum of a UK Honours degree at 2.1 or equivalent in a biological or environmental subject, or in computer science. Candidates with additional (e.g. Masters) qualifications will be looked on favourably. A driving licence and fieldwork experience would be valuable.

Email address for enquiries.


Further reading

Aitken, S.N. & Whitlock, M.C. (2013) Assisted gene flow to facilitate local adaptation to climate change. 44: 367-388.

Bell, G. (2013) Evolutionary rescue and the limits of adaptation. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 368:20120080

Bell, G. (2017) Evolutionary Rescue. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 48: 605-627

Bridle, J. R. et al. (2019). Local adaptation stops where ecological gradients steepen orare interrupted. Evol. Appl. 12, 1449-1462.

Dauphin, B. et al. (2020). Disentangling the effects of geographic peripherality and habitat suitability on neutral and adaptive genetic variation in Swiss stone pine. Mol. Ecol. 29, 1972-1989.

Haldane, J. B. S. (1956). The relation between density regulation and natural selection. Proc. Roy. Soc. B. 145, 306-308.

Henry, R. C. et al. (2015). Mutation accumulation and the formation of range limitsBiol. Lett. 11, 20140871.

Kirkpatrick, M. & Barton, N. H. (1997). Evolution of a species’ range. Am. Nat. 150, 1-23.

Magalhaes, I. S. et al. (2021). Intercontinental genomic parallelism in multiple three-spined stickleback adaptive radiations. Nature Ecol. Evol. 5, 251-261.

Polechova, J. (2018). Is the sky the limit? On the expansion threshold of a species’ rangePLoS. Biol. 16, 2005372.

Smith, S. et al. (2020). Latitudinal variation in climate-associated genes imperils range edge populations. Mol. Ecol. 29, 4337-4349.

Willi, Y. & Van Buskirk, J. (2019). A practical guide to the study of distribution limits. Am. Nat. 193, 773-785.