Natural selection and adaptation to environmental change:
We are interested in the ecological causes of, and genetic responses to, natural selection. Given the close links between the fields of ecology and evolution, it is surprising how little we understand about the environmental factors and ecological interactions that drive natural selection (and therefore the great majority of evolution). An improved understanding of these things would greatly inform our comprehension of the natural world, and could help us to deal with the effects of global change.
In a recently begun, NERC funded project, we will investigate the genomic detail of how organisms adapt to rapid environmental change, by introducing marine three-spined stickleback into freshwater ponds. This mimics a natural event that has occurred countless times in the history of the species, and is known to give rise to very rapid evolution. However the short-term details of these genomic changes, and the order in which they occur have not yet been subject to scrutiny. Examining these changes could help to reveal how other organisms might adapt to the rapid environmental change which they face.
In a another recent project, funded by a NERC standard grant, "Multivariate evolution in replicated adaptive radiations: pattern, process and the role of the environment", we have examined links between environmental, phenotypic and genomic variation across four adaptive radiations of the three-spined stickleback. We have already published one paper on the relationships between environment and phenotype on North Uist, and others are in preparation.
From 2011 to 2013, Andrew was Chair of an international working group funded by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre, USA: "Environmental and demographic determinants of natural selection". This was a collaboration between many evolutionary biologists from across the world (right). Using meta-analysis, we sought to understand the effects of environmental variation on the strength of natural selection in both natural and experimental circumstances. We have published two papers from this working group in 2017, one in Science, the other in American Naturalist.
Host-parasite interactions and ecological immunology:
Parasites are ubiquitous in wild populations, and the immune and other responses to infection of their hosts are highly variable within and among populations. However, the ecological and evolutionary causes and consequences of variation in infection, and host responses to it, are poorly understood. A better understanding of these would improve our comprehension of a major set of factors that govern biodiversity, as well as possibly assisting in the control and treatment of animal, and even human, disease.
Andrew is coinvestigator (PI: Jan Bradley, with Kathryn Else and John Brookfield) on a BBSRC grant to quantify the drivers of immune variation in a wild population of house mice on the Isle of May, Scotland, one of few places in the United Kingdom where house mice live independently from humans. We will estimate the heritability of immune function in this wild population, and seek to identify the most important environmental factors that contribute to its variation among individuals, especially the role played by infection.
Using three-spined sticklebacks as a model system, we have previously found that levels of infection with parasites can differ greatly between populations, and that these differences can remain consistent over many years. These differences in infection rates are associated with differences in resistance to some parasites. Populations experiencing high levels of infection tend to exhibit higher levels of resistance to those infections. When animals attempt to disperse between populations with different kinds of parasites, differences in resistance can have significant effects on e.g. growth, which may reduce the chances of successful dispersal.
Jim Whiting has recently finished a PhD examining the evolutionary consequences of variation in parasite resistance using field, experimental and molecular genetic techniques.
Mahmuda Begum (co-supervised by Dr Sharon Egan, Nottingham Vet School) has recently started a PhD project looking at links between the microbiome and parasite resistance.
Most aspects of the evolution of organisms are affected by the environment in which they live, and the ecology they experience. Recently researchers have begun to realise that the evolution of organisms can also affect the ecology of the environments in which they live, so-called 'eco-evolutionary dynamics'
Talib Chitheer has recently finished a PhD quantifying plankton community and fish phenotypic variation in lochs on North Uist, Scotland to test ideas about eco-evolutionary dynamics.
In her PhD Laura Dean (co-supervised by Professor Suzanne McGowan, School of Geography) used palaeolimnological techniques, detailed topographical surveying, mate choice experiments and molecular genetics to test hypotheses about the role of sea-level change in driving speciation in sticklebacks.
Many of the species and ecosystems studied by evolutionary biologists and ecologists are under threat from diverse sources. Careful scientific study of species and ecosystems can help to reveal the full nature of such problems, and may help to suggest solutions.
Chris Heward, who is based mainly at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (Supervisor Dr Andrew Hoodless), is using large-scale population and habitat surveys to try to understand the effects of landscape influences, wood-scale processes and climate change on the Eurasian woodcock, a declining woodland specialist bird species.
Group members have previously worked on projects including:
(1) The ecology of the British willow tit (Poecile montanus kleinschmidti), an endemic subspecies, and one of the UK's most rapidly declining bird species.
(2) The exploitation of wildlife in the Ugalla ecosystem in Western Tanzania.