Project Description

As climates warm, many species are now able to colonise new regions poleward of their ancestral geographic ranges. In some cases, range shifting negatively affects local communities, for instance if newcomers out-compete native residents or transmit new diseases. In addition, there is high variability among taxa in range shifting rates, meaning that some species are more vulnerable to future warming, if they are unable to track changing climates. Thus, understanding the mechanisms that promote or hinder range shifts remains an important and open question for improving future biodiversity and ecosystem services in a changing world, and to advance our fundamental understanding of ecological and evolutionary processes.

One important aspect of individual life history that is gaining increasing attention for impacting wider ecological processes is the concept of the holobiont: a single macroscopic host organism together with the wider community of microscopic organisms that colonise it (Koide, 2022). This may include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, and animals that function as parasites, symbionts, and commensals which together can influence changes in host behaviour, physiology, or even morphology. The holobiont may therefore be critical for understanding variation in range shifting rates among host organisms, for instance via interactive impacts on dispersal ability, mating success, environmental tolerances, and habitat selection in new environments. However, this hypothesis has received little attention to date, providing the student with the opportunity to produce ground-breaking research on this topic.

The student will join an existing project team consisting of 3 postdocs and a network of academic collaborators from the UK, Sweden, Finland, Australia, and New Zealand, who are currently researching the evolutionary genetics of range shifting in the common blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans). This species is rapidly shifting to higher latitudes in Northern Europe in response to climate change. We have already identified genetic changes (Dudaniec et al. 2018) and changes in microbial symbionts (Deng et al. 2021) associated with this range shift. We are currently funded to sample additional, parallel range shift transects for I. elegans in Great Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with the aim to understand how genetic and community differences explain variation in range shifting success. The student will join the team to contribute knowledge on the holobiont, how it shifts across latitudes and with organismal development, and how these patterns relate to changes in dispersal and population characteristics along the four transects. There will be ample opportunity for fieldwork, networking with non-academic partners and stakeholders, and creative freedom for the student to develop their own project directions.

The supervisory and project team will provide support and training in evolutionary ecology, population ecology, microbial ecology, and techniques in genetics, bioinformatics, statistical analysis, and eco-evolutionary modelling. The project will combine fieldwork, molecular genetics, and modelling to explain how holobiont turnover interacts with species’ responses to climate change. Project partner Buglife will further offer a 3-month internship to provide the student with experience in a more applied research and outreach setting. 

This project benefits from additional funding from three existing research grant to study range shift ecology and evolution in I. elegans, totalling £800K. The student will work in collaboration with three postdoctoral fellows who are researching other aspects of this system, and who can provide additional training and support to the student. We have existing I. elegans holobiont samples from poleward range shift transects in Sweden and Scotland in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and from Norway and Finland in 2021. We will gather additional samples and data from these countries in the coming years, thus offering the student the opportunity to plan their own fieldwork and gather their own data, while also providing the security of existing data/samples and the opportunity to begin on molecular analyses sooner in the training process.

For all informal inquiries about the project, please contact Lesley Lancaster ( 

Essential & desirable candidate skills

Essential: a good grasp of ecological and evolutionary principles; strongly interested and motivated to deliver new insight in global change ecology. 

Desirable: Molecular ecology wet lab and/or bioinformatic or other programming experience desirable 


Lesley Lancaster

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Lesley Lancaster
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Chris Creevey

Secondary Supervisor:

Profile: Chris Creevey
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Cécile Gubry-Rangin

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Cécile Gubry-Rangin
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Greta Bocedi

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Greta Bocedi
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences

Additional Supervisor:

Mr Craig Macadam 

Buglife – The Invertebrate Conservation Trust 



Wolbachia-driven selective sweep in a range expanding insect species

J Deng, G Assandri, P Chauhan, R Futahashi, A Galimberti, B Hansson, LT Lancaster, Y Takahashi, EI Svensson, A Duplouy

BMC Ecology and Evolution 21 (181)


Signatures of local adaptation along environmental gradients in a range‐expanding damselfly (Ischnura elegans)

RY Dudaniec, CJ Yong, LT Lancaster, EI Svensson, B Hansson

Molecular Ecology 27 (11), 2576-2593


On Holobionts, Holospecies, and Holoniches: the Role of Microbial Symbioses in Ecology and Evolution

Roger T. Koide

Microbial Ecology (2022)

Expected Training Provision

The study further benefits from support by the highly popular Quadrat Doctoral Training Programme (DTP) between the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and Queen’s University Belfast (Northern Ireland), which offers a range of career-building training workshops in scientific practice and communication, as well as numerous cohort-building activities between the two campuses (and additional travel to Belfast to visit the laboratory of Belfast-based co-supervisor Prof. Creevey). The supervisory team includes empirical range shift ecologists, microbial ecologists, and evolutionary modellers, all with a strong track record of student mentorship and further employment in advanced career roles within academic and ecological consulting sectors among their former students. We welcome informal inquiries from prospective applicants. Upon establishment of contact, the supervisory team, alongside their existing Quadrat DTP students, will help promising prospective applicants through the application and interview process. Our aim is to train a student who is highly motivated to learn evolutionary processes, and to deliver cutting edge science in this area of research. We welcome diverse perspectives, and strongly encourage creativity and originality, so please also feel free to approach us with your own ideas to apply and discover within this exciting study system.  


The project aims to discover novel factors associated with variation in species’ climate change responses, which is extremely timely and important for our understanding of current changes in and threats to biodiversity. The project will capitalize on a large existing project which aims to understand how genetic and epigenetic processes, and biotic interactions, facilitate or constrain the biogeographic movement of species due to climate change (this project is currently funded by a NERC discovery grant, UKRI guarantee funding for a Marie Curie fellowship, and a Royal Society URF enhancement grant). The proposed PhD studentship will thus add strong value to the existing NERC- and otherwise-funded research. Furthermore, the role of the holobiont to promote or constrain range shifts is currently almost completely unknown, and filling this knowledge gap has the promise to lead to new paradigms in range shift ecology. Based on our existing data and staff resources, we are therefore uniquely suited to support the student to make these fundamental discoveries. The project, moreover, is highly suitable for a PhD studentship based on its fundamental and applied relevance, and the opportunity for discovery and creative freedom that it will afford the student.  

Proposed Timetable

The exact timeline of the project will be planned in collaboration with the student, taking into account their ideas and other commitments (for instance any caring roles or other limitations on different aspects of the planned practical work). We encourage students to develop their own ideas and to contribute to the research planning at all stages, although we will also provide structured support throughout the project. Here we provide one example timeline:

Year 1: Extract and process holobiont DNA from existing samples from Scottish, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian range shift transects. Fieldwork in the UK, Norway, and Sweden to gather additional samples. Training in wet laboratory and bioinformatic techniques.

Year 2: Additional sample processing and bioinformatic analysis. Training in modelling and complex statistical analysis. Laboratory experiments to separate influences of host genetics and environment on host-associated microbial communities.

Year 3: Data analysis and model development. Buglife internship.

Year 4: Write up and dissemination. Outreach, networking, and conference presentations (the latter also encouraged in earlier years of the PhD).


  • biodiversity


A potential CASE partnership is under discussion with Buglife -The Invertebrate Conservation Trust. An update will be provided in due course. 

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