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Sensory adaptations in mimetic butterflies

Sensory adaptations in mimetic butterflies

Supervisors: Dr Stephen Montgomery

Project summary:

We live amidst a cacophony of sensory information. Processing sensory information from the environment is a vital aspect of any behavioural response. Micro-habitat partitioning between mimicry rings in Neotropical butterflies provides a case study in adaptation to different sensory environments. Species belonging to the same mimicry ring show convergence in micro-habitat preference, whilst closely related species belonging to different mimicry rings quickly diverge in micro-habitat preference, exposing closely related species to contrasting sensory environments. Microhabitat preference therefore has knock on effects for a range of behaviours, including foraging and intra-specific communication.  This dual pattern of convergence and divergence therefore provides a range of opportunities for comparative analyses. This project will use Ithomiine butterflies as a study system to ask how species adapt to their sensory environment: For example, what is more important for sensory adaptation, changes in perception or sensory processing? How does selection for sensory specialisation shape peripheral and central neural structures? And does the convergent colonisation of the same micro-habitat produce the same evolutionary solutions? 


What the student will be doing:

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

i) molecular evolution of sensory receptors, providing training in comparative genomics.

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

ii) functional effects of sensory adaptations, providing training in comparative physiology. 



Elias, M., Gompert, Z., Jiggins, C., & Willmott, K. (2008). Mutualistic interactions drive ecological niche convergence in a diverse butterfly community. PLoS Biol, 6(12), e300.

Montgomery, S. H., & Ott, S. R. (2015). Brain composition in Godyris zavaleta, a diurnal butterfly, reflects an increased reliance on olfactory information. J. Comp. Neurol., 523(6), 869-891.

Montgomery, S. H., Merrill, R. M., & Ott, S. R. (2016). Brain composition in Heliconius butterflies, posteclosion growth and experience‐dependent neuropil plasticity. J. Comp. Neurol., 524(9), 1747-1769. 



Funding for consumables, fieldwork and sequencing experiments is available. Funding for fees and stipends to be sought from Departmental and University funds.