Octavia Brayley

University of Birmingham


Insect responses to climate change in Antarctica and ecosystem consequences


  • Dr. Scott Hayward, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Pete Convey, British Antarctic Survey
  • Professor Sami Ullah, University of Birmingham

PhD Summary

Model reconstructions of the last glacial maximum (LGM ~20 000 years ago) in the Antarctic region suggest that all low-lying coastal areas were completely covered by ice – thus wiping out all terrestrial life.  If true, this would mean the current biogeography of Antarctic insects is the result of different species colonising quite discrete locations since the LGM.  This seems highly unlikely, not least because two of these species, Belgica antarctica (endemic to the Antarctic Peninsula region) and Eretmoptera murphyi (endemic to sub-Antarctic South Georgia) are flightless.  Recent/post-LGM colonisation is further debunked by RNA sequencing data, indicating a 49 Myr separation between these two species. Thus, habitat refugia must have existed continuously since Antarctica split from the other Southern Hemisphere continents at least 28 MYA, and we hypothesize that endemic species possess unique adaptations to their respective environments.

Investigating the ecophysiology of these species, and the molecular processes underpinning their stress responses offers incredibly powerful comparative models for probing their evolutionary biology and abilities to cope with climate change. Using microclimate modelling we can also assess each species’ capacity to extend their distribution into other parts of the Antarctic region. Indeed, E. murphyi is already invasive within parts of the maritime Antarctic and it was recently identified that this species is having a significant impact on soil nitrogen levels. In turn, this has potentially significant implications for the low-nutrient adapted plant and lichen communities, as well as the establishment potential of higher ‘alien’ plants.

The project will investigate:

  1. Adaptations that have allowed Antarctic insects to persist in this extreme environment for millions of years.
  2. The implications of climate change on their future survival and distribution.
  3. Broader ecosystem consequences of invasive insect species within the Antarctic region, specifically on soil biogeochemistry.

Previous activity

I completed two degrees at the University of Bristol; BSc in Zoology and MSc(R) in Biological Sciences. During my undergraduate degree, I was part of many different research groups, including a team at the University of Bristol that discovered the colour of dinosaurs through molecular and microscope analysis of pigment-providing organelles called melanosomes. This project revealed that dinosaurs wore rich and vibrant-coloured feathers that were often fiery reds, burnt oranges, and iridescent hues. This finding was named one of the ‘top 20 scientific discoveries of the decade’ by National Geographic in 2019. More recently, my master’s research focused on animal vision and the effects of light pollution on the behaviour and circadian rhythms of marine animals. Light pollution is a lesser-known environmental stressor, and I, therefore, made it a priority to carry out a variety of public engagement events such as creating exhibits for science festivals and educational events, presenting at a variety of conferences, and publishing a first-authorship paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Lighting. I then went on to secure a position as a Biology teacher at the world-renowned Harrow School in London where I taught the GCSE and A-Level curriculum to students and shared my knowledge of polar Biology through my own elective course as part of the Harrow Diploma.

Why did you choose CENTA?

A key factor that led me to apply to CENTA was the collaborative nature of the project. Through my Ph.D., I have a unique opportunity to undertake research with the British Antarctic Survey and the US Antarctic Program, as well as project partners in Chile and France to work on key polar species at the front line of climate change. I will also have direct engagement with stakeholders driving forward conservation in Antarctica, e.g. the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Additionally, CENTA provides exceptional outreach opportunities for public engagement, which I am very passionate about, and also has an exciting and diverse training program, which will allow me to gain numerous skills alongside my project.

Future plans

Currently, I would like to remain in research with the hopes of leading my own Antarctic research group whilst lecturing at a university. Carrying out this Ph.D. through CENTA and the University of Birmingham will equip me with the vital skills and knowledge needed to achieve this goal, and will allow me to collaborate with other scientists from different fields to expand the interdisciplinary nature of my research, which is essential when tackling some of the most pressing environmental issues we are facing today.