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Brain and behavioural adaptations to high altitude environments

Brain and behavioural adaptations to high altitude environments

Supervisors: Dr Stephen Montgomery

Project summary:

Local adaptation across environmental gradients can be an important trigger of speciation. Heliconius butterflies, a diverse genus of Neotropical species, provide a case study in this process. Multiple ‘incipient’ species in the erato clade are locally adapted to high-altitude, dry forests and are ecologically and reproductively isolated from their lowland ancestors. In one example, involving H. himera and H. erato cyrbia, local adaptation to high altitude forests includes shifts in behavioural and life history traits, and changes in brain morphology. This suggests divergence in neural and sensory systems may play an important role in local adaptation. By performing a comparative study in H. erato chestertonii, an independently evolved high altitude race, you will test for evidence of convergent shifts in brain structure and behaviour, and perform experimental tests of the role of behavioural plasticity in facilitating local adaptation. 


What the student will be doing:

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

i) interspecific variation in brain architecture, providing training in neuroanatomy and phylogenetic methods.

ii) controlled assays of behaviour and life history traits.

iii) environmental data collection

iv) experimental tests of the role of brain and behavioural plasticity in local adaptation.

The project will require extended periods of fieldwork in Colombia and will be conducted with collaborators at Universidad del Rosario 



Arias CF, Munoz AG, Jiggins CD, Mavarez J, Bermingham E, Linares M. A hybrid zone provides evidence for incipient ecological speciation in Heliconius butterflies. Molecular ecology. 2008 Nov 1;17(21):4699-712.

Muñoz AG, Salazar C, Castano J, Jiggins CD, Linares M. Multiple sources of reproductive isolation in a bimodal butterfly hybrid zone. Journal of evolutionary biology. 2010 Jun 1;23(6):1312-20.

Montgomery SH, Merrill RM. Divergence in brain composition during the early stages of ecological specialization in Heliconius butterflies. Journal of evolutionary biology. 2017 Mar 1;30(3):571-82.