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Department of Zoology



I joined the University of Cambridge in 2015 as an undergraduate at Homerton College reading Natural Sciences; whilst this is a broad Tripos I increasingly specalised in evolutionary biology in my second and third years.

In the summer of 2016 I spent two months as a research intern in the Kilner Group testing for local adaptation in natural populations of burying beetles (see below); I then wrote this up for my second year research project. Encouraged by my findings, I returned in the summer of 2017 where I carried out further experiments in the same vein, finding in both years evidence for ultra-local adaptation. In my third year research project I began to ask how these adaptations evolved, testing whether the newly conceputalised process of plasticity-led evolution was responsible. I graduated in 2018, moving to Christ's College to start my PhD in evolutionary biology.


Local adaptation in the burying beetle: ecological causes and evolutionary consequences

My research centres around local adaptation i.e. when different populations of the same species evolve different adaptations due to differences in their local environments. Understanding local adaptation is important as it allows us to better predict the evolution of societally-relevant species, such as pests, pathogens, cattle (and ourselves!), but it is also of key scientific interest to evolutionary biologists. This is because local adaptation is a central process in evolutionary diversification: it determines the persistence and ecological dynamics of populations, it often changes the course of the subsequent evolution of both the locally-adapted population and interacting heterospecific populations, and by giving rise to population divergence it can fuel speciation and adaptive radiations. Despite this, many questions remain about the ecological causes and evolutionary consequences of local adaptation, as well as uncertainty over just how 'local' adaptation can be.

To investigate how & why local adaptation occurs in nature and to understand how this subsequently drives further evolutionary change,  I work with natural populations of burying beetles (Nicrophorus spp.). Burying beetles are an increasingly studied model organism in evolutionary ecology due to their elaborate social behaviours, and the  populations of Nicrophorus in Cambridgeshire's ancient woodlands provide an ideal system for studying local adaptation: despite likely descending from a common ancestral burying beetle community, the populations now vary both in their community structure and connectivity. By combining experimental and genetic analyses in the lab with field data, I aim to identify locally adaptive traits, investigate how & why these traits evolved & what impact this had on interactions between species.


Key publications: 

Syuan‐Jyun Sun, Andrew M. Catherall, Sonia Pascoal, Benjamin J. M. Jarrett, Sara E. Miller, Michael J. Sheehan, Rebecca M. Kilner Rapid local adaptation linked with phenotypic plasticity Evolution Letters (2020)

PhD Student

Contact Details

F23, Main Building, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EJ
01223 (3)34466