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The evolution of mimicry in a changing world: how shifting bumblebee communities affect selection on a colour-polymorphic hoverfly

Complex species interactions make the impacts of global environmental change difficult to foresee. Understanding the ecological and evolutionary relationships between species, and the way that the fitness of a species is affected by changes in community composition, is essential in order to predict shifts in species distributions and patterns of biodiversity. In this project, we will investigate a fascinating interaction between an important group of pollinators and their charismatic parasite, with the ultimate aim of predicting the consequences of environmental change for the species concerned. Along the way, we will gain some valuable insights into the genetic origins of Batesian mimicry. The project involves an unusual combination of practical ecology and behaviour, species distribution modelling, and cutting-edge genomics.

Larvae of the hoverfly Volucella bombylans infest the nests of bumblebees. They eat bumblebee brood cells, pollen stores and detritus, but the impact on host fitness, and hence the degree of parasitism, is not known. Adult flies display a striking colour polymorphism, with individuals resembling different bumblebee species. We think they are Batesian mimics, fooling predators into thinking that palatable and harmless flies are heavily-defended and unpalatable. In the era of species distribution modelling and genome sequencing, this system provides unique opportunities to address two fascinating research questions. Firstly, how will global environmental change affect the relationship between a putative parasite and its hosts, when those hosts also act as a model for mimicry? And secondly, which genes are responsible for Batesian mimicry, and how is selection on those genes influenced by variation in community composition?

The successful applicant will conduct field sampling, laboratory experiments, genomic analysis and species distribution modelling, with the focus of the work being shaped by the student’s interests. They will work with a cross-disciplinary supervisory team, and receive training in entomology, bioinformatics and modelling.

Essential: The student should hold at least an upper-second class (2.1) undergraduate degree or equivalent in a biological science; they should have experience of ecology, evolutionary biology and genetics; they should have practical research project experience and laboratory skills. Highly desirable: A Masters-level qualification in a relevant subject area; full UK driving licence; experience of statistical/mathematical modelling; experience of practical entomology; experience of PCR and other basic molecular laboratory skills.

By email to Dr Tom Reader, School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, NG7 2RD;