NERC funded PhD position on temperature adaptation in Heliconius

We are seeking an enthusiastic student with interests in ecology, evolution and genetics to work on a project investigating thermal adaptation in tropical Andean butterflies. Understanding organisms’ adaptation to their thermal environment is important for predicting responses to climate change. Tropical insects make up around half of all species on Earth, and yet very little is known about their thermal ecology. Butterflies are one of the best-studied insect groups concerning thermal adaptation, but relatively little is known about the responses of tropical species to climate change.

The Heliconius butterflies have been extensively studied, and there is good information about the distributions of species in this genus, but very little is known about what determines species ranges (e.g. temperature versus rainfall), or how ranges have shifted. Many of the species in the genus are found in and around the Andes, and it seems likely that thermal adaptation plays a role in delimiting niches in this area, and in driving distributions to shift uphill, but this has not previously been investigated. Excellent genomic resources are available for Heliconius, which have been used to investigate genes underlying adaptation and speciation. This provides the opportunity to investigate thermal adaptation in this group at multiple levels, from genes to populations, species and communities, to investigate and predict responses to climate change.

The project can be tailored to the interests of the student but could include a combination of field work, physiological and genetic laboratory work, computational analysis including analysis of genomic data and species distribution modelling, and working with historical collections and records. Key questions that could be addressed include: understanding how temperature affects survival, growth and fecundity of Heliconius species found at different elevations across the Andes; if and how these parameters relate to species distributions and range limits; if and how species ranges are changing or could change in response to habitat and climate change; the genetic basis of thermal adaptation and whether genetic changes have occurred or are they likely to occur in response to climate change.

This PhD will be linked to a newly funded NERC grant exploring variation in thermal adaptation across altitudinal gradients in Heliconius and the genetic basis of this. This collaborative project is led by Dr Nadeau in Sheffield, with Prof. Jiggins in Cambridge, Dr Saastamoinen in Helsinki and Dr Bacquet at the Amazonian Regional University, IKIAM, in Ecuador. The PhD student will expand this work to understand the implications for species distributions and climate change, with guidance from co-supervisor Prof. Hill in York.

Application deadline: Wednesday 9th January, 2019

Apply via the online application system

  • Select ‘Standard PhD’ and ‘Animal and Plant Sciences (APS)’ as the department
  • Fill in the Title of the project (‘Understanding temperature adaptation in tropical Andean butterflies’) and the name(s) of the supervisors (‘Dr Nicola Nadeau and Prof. Jane Hill’).
  • ‘Study term,’ can be full-time or part-time
  • The starting date of PhD will be the start of the next academic year- 1 Oct 2019
  • Funding stage‘ on the form will be ‘project studentship

Contact Nicola Nadeau for informal enquiries and further information.

Funding Notes

Fully funded studentships cover: (i) a stipend at the UKRI rate (at least £14,777 per annum for 2019-2020), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who have been living in the UK for the last three years immediately before the start of the studentship. EU nationals who do not meet the residency requirement are still eligible for ‘fees only award’, which covers fees and a research grant (RTSG), but no stipend.
This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment). ACCE is a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York, CEH, and NHM.
Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 11th February 2019.

Further reading

Nadeau NJ et al. 2014 Population genomics of parallel hybrid zones in the mimetic butterflies, H. Melpomene and H. erato. Genome Res. 24, 1316–1333. DOI:10.1101/gr.169292.113
Scriven SA, Beale CM, Benedick S, Hill JK. 2017 Barriers to dispersal of rain forest butterflies in tropical agricultural landscapes. Biotropica 49, 206–216. DOI:10.1111/btp.12397
Rosser N, Phillimore AB, Huertas B, Willmott KR, Mallet J. 2012 Testing historical explanations for gradients in species richness in heliconiine butterflies of tropical America. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 105, 479–497. DOI:10.1111/j.1095-8312.2011.01814.x

Festival of the Mind

Next week the university is hosting the Festival of the Mind a collaboration between our academic colleagues and experts from Sheffield’s cultural and creative industries.

We have been working with artist Sarah Jane Palmer to create artwork telling the story of some our research. this will be on display in the millennium gallery from Thursday 20 – Thursday 27 September as part of the Futurecade.  Sarah will also be giving a talk at 4pm on 20 September, with a question and answer session with Nicola.

Postdoc and research assistant positions on new NERC funded project

We have recently been awarded a NERC grant to investigate adaptation to altitude in Heliconius butterflies. The project is in collaboration with Chris Jiggins at the University of Cambridge, Marjo Saastamoinen at the University of Helsinki and Caroline Bacquet at IKIAM University in Ecuador.

We are currently advertising two positions on this grant:

A 3-year postdoc position. This will It will involve intensive rearing and phenotyping of butterflies to characterize both inter- and intra-specific differences in thermal adaptation at different altitudes in the Andes. This will be followed by generation and analysis of high-throughput genomic data to identify underlying genetic differences. The rearing and phenotyping will be conducted in Ecuador, therefore you will be expected to spend significant amounts of time working in Ecuador with partner organisations. You will have a strong commitment to evolutionary research with skills in at least one of:
analysis of large genomic data sets; analysis of quantitative trait variation; or insect ecophysiology. Being able to communicate in Spanish would also be an advantage.You will hold a PhD or equivalent experience in evolutionary biology and will have experience of research in evolutionary genetics and analysing large data sets.

Apply here.

A 2-year graduate research assistant position. This will involve assisting the postdoc, primarily with rearing and phenotyping of butterflies to characterize both inter- and intraspecific differences in thermal adaptation at different altitudes in the Andes. The rearing and phenotyping will be conducted in Ecuador, therefore you will be expected to spend significant amounts of time working in Ecuador. You will have an interest and enthusiasm for evolutionary research with good attention to detail and experience of accurate collection and handling of data. You will have a good honours degree or equivalent experience in a biological discipline and experience of recording and checking numerical data in a research context. You will have an enthusiasm for evolutionary/ ecological/ entomological research and experience of rearing insects. Being able to communicate in Spanish would also be an advantage.

Apply here.

The closing date for applications for both positions is the 18th of June 2018. The starting dates for both positions are around the 1st of September 2018, but there may be some flexibility. Contact Nicola for further information or informal enquiries about either position.

New publication! Wing scale ultrastructure underlying convergent and divergent iridescent colours in Heliconius

Our paper describing the structures responsible for producing iridescent blue colour in five species of Heliconius butterfly is out in print today in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Heliconius, also know as Passion-vine butterflies, from rainforests in Ecuador have bright wing colours to warn predators that they are toxic. Different species have evolved similar colours, helping predators learn to avoid them. Some of their colours are iridescent, changing with angle. These colours are produced, not by light absorbing pigments, but by nano-structures. Colours of this type are known as structural colours.

Mimetic butterflies, Heliconius erato cyrbia and Heliconius melpomene cythera, with structurally produced blue colour. Credit: Melanie Brien

In our paper we have identified the nano-structures that produce these colours: layered ridges on hairs-width-sized scales covering the wing, which cause constructive interference of blue light.

Part of a Heliconius eleuchia scale, showing the scale ultrastructures. Blue iridescent colour is produced by the layered ridge lamellae.

Similar structures are used by different species, but the colour and brightness of the species differs because of slight differences in the nano-structural features. It seems that some features can evolve faster than others, suggesting that these are more easily modified. There are noticeable differences, particularly in brightness, between the mimetic species pairs, H. erato cyrbia, H. melpomene cythera and H. eleuchia, H. cydno. These differences in brightness come from features of the ridges, including how flat they are and how many layers are present, as well as how densely packed the ridges are on the scale. We find that the packing of the ridges appears to evolve relatively quickly and is fairly similar between co-mimics, while the features of the ridges themselves appear to evolve more slowly, explaining the lack of perfect mimicry.

The evolution of iridescent blue colour in Heliconius. This colour is found in just a few species (blue branches) but has evolved multiple times. The labelled species, accompanied by wing photographs, are those we investigated in our paper.

The project was a collaborative effort with colleagues in the Physics Department, in particular Andrew Parnell, as well as using data we collected at the ESRF, and with key input from Pete Vukusic in Exeter. The butterflies were collected in and around the Mashpi Reserve in Ecuador, providing a unique ecological viewpoint by allowing us to investigate butterflies from the same community.

Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship Competition

Interested in applying for independent funding to come and work on structural colour evolution, genetics or development (or anything aligned to our research interests)?

The Leverhulme Trust annually supports a number of Early Career Fellowships (

The 2018 round opens on 1 January 2018. The closing date for applications is 1 March 2018

The scheme is aimed at those who are at a relatively early stage of their academic careers but with a proven record of research.  Applications are invited from those with a doctorate who had their doctoral viva not more than four years from the application closing date. Hence those who had their viva before 1 March 2014 are not eligible unless they have since had a career break.

The Trust will contribute 50% of each Fellow’s total salary costs up to a maximum of £25,000 per annum with the balance to be paid by the host institution. Each fellow may also request annual research expenses of up to £6,000 to further their research activities. Due to the financial commitment that the University has to make, there will be an internal competition to identify applicants whom the department/faculty will support.

The internal deadline for APS applications is 5pm Friday 1st December.

Each dept in the Faculty of Science can submit 1 person to Faculty for potential support. The Faculty will then select which candidate(s) to support. So, there is a three-step process (a) selection by APS followed by (b) selection by Faculty (c) submitting application to the leverhulme.

If you are interested in apply for one of these to come and work with me please get in touch! I would be particularly interested in anyone with an interest in working on the evolution, genetics or development of structural colours, but could support any candidates with a strong CV and interests that overlap with mine.

NERC funded PhD opportunity

We are seeking an enthusiastic student with interests in evolution, developmental biology and/or biophysics to work on a project investigating the developmental mechanisms controlling iridescent structural colouration in Heliconius butterflies. Iridescent colour in these butterflies is produced by coherent scattering of light by sub-micron scale structures. Structural colours are some of the brightest and most impressive in nature, yet almost nothing is known about how these very precise structures are controlled during the development of the butterfly wing scale.

The Heliconius butterflies are an excellent system to investigate this process because they are very diverse in their wing colours and patterns, including a small number of species that exhibit iridescent blue/green. Comparing developmental processes between butterflies with and without iridescence can help us to understand how iridescence is produced and the evolutionary changes involved. The project would build on genetic work being done in the lab, identifying genes controlling differences in iridescence, by investigating how these genes control scale structure formation.

The project can be tailored to the interests of the student but could include a range of cutting-edge techniques including fluorescence confocal microscopy, super-resolution microscopy, electron microscopy, small-angle x-ray scattering and CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing. It could also involve bioinformatic analysis of high-throughput sequence data, to investigate gene expression.

iridescent Heliconius wing scales

Contact Nicola for further information about the project.

The project is co-supervised by Gareth Fraser and Andrew Parnell.

If successful, the student would be fully funded for a minimum of 3.5 years, studentships cover: (i) a tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate (at least £14,553 per annum for 2018-2019), (ii) research costs, and (iii) tuition fees at the UK/EU rate. Studentship(s) are available to UK and EU students who meet the UK residency requirements. Students from EU countries who do not meet residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award.

This PhD project is part of the NERC funded Doctoral Training Partnership “ACCE” (Adapting to the Challenges of a Changing Environment), a partnership between the Universities of Sheffield, Liverpool, York and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Selection process: Shortlisting will take place as soon as possible after the closing date, and successful applicants will be notified promptly. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for an interview to take place at the University of Sheffield the w/c 12th February 2018.

Apply here. Deadline: Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Structural colour

Here is a video I made to demonstrate structural colour. The blue colour on these butterflies’ wings is produced when light passes through nano-metre scale structures and the interfaces between these and the surrounding air. When ethanol is dropped onto the wings these air spaces are filled in and so the colour changes. The video is at 2x actual speed, so you can see that the colour comes back when the ethanol evaporates.

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships

There is currently an open call for Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowships (Deadline 14th September 2017). Please get in touch with Nicola if you are interested in applying for one of these to come and join the group. Eligible candidates are post-doctoral researchers wanting to move to the UK from another country (either inside or outside Europe). I would be particularly interested in post-docs with experience in evolutionary developmental biology who are interested in working on structural colour, but feel free to get in touch if you have any interests that you feel overlap with mine.