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The evolution of social caterpillars

The evolution of social caterpillars

Supervisors: Dr Stephen Montgomery, Prof Chris Jiggins

Project summary:

Gregarious behaviour has evolved many times in a wide range of animals.  The prevalence of gregarious behaviour poses many interesting evolutionary questions; How is the conflict between competition and cooperation balanced? What are the advantages and what are the costs? But it also poses many mechanistic questions too; how do animals sense each other? How do they track each other’s behaviour? This project aims to tackle these questions using Heliconiini, a diverse tribe of Neotropical butterflies, as a study system. Gregarious larval behaviour has evolved convergent in multiple independent lineages, and in some cases closely related species differ dramatically in egg laying and larval behaviour. The primary goal of the project is to understand the genetic and behavioural mechanisms that underpin gregarious behaviour, and to investigate the selection pressures shaping behavioural variation across species.

What the student will be doing:

The approach taken can be tailored to the particular interests of the student. Opportunities exist to investigate:

i) Behavioural mechanisms behind gregarious behaviour, what sensory cues do they use? How do they use them? Including training in designing and conducting behavioural experiments.

ii) Ecological correlates of gregarious behaviour; why do they do it? What effects does it have on other aspects of their behaviour? Including training in phylogenetic methods.

iii) Quantitative genetics of variation in gregarious behaviour. Including training in the design and analysis of crossing experiments.

iii) Comparative genomics and neurotranscriptomics of convergent gregarious behaviour. Including training in bioinformatics.

The project will likely involve prolonged periods based in Central/South America.


Beltrán, M., Jiggins, C. D., Brower, A. V., Bermingham, E., & Mallet, J. (2007). Do pollen feeding, pupal‐mating and larval gregariousness have a single origin in Heliconius butterflies? Inferences from multilocus DNA sequence data. Biol. J. Linnean Soc., 92(2), 221-239.

Brown Jr, K. S. (1981). The biology of Heliconius and related genera. Annu. Rev. Entomol., 26(1), 427-457.