Project highlights

  • A unique opportunity to undertake research with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the US Antarctic Program (USAP), as well as project partners in Chile and France to work on key polar species at the front-line of climate change.
  • Training in field and lab-based techniques relevant to understanding the physiology, ecology and molecular biology of insect adaptation to extreme environments. The specific focus across these disciplines will be driven by the core interests of the candidate selected to undertake the project.
  • Direct engagement with stakeholders driving forward conservation in Antarctica, e.g. the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Exceptional outreach opportunities for enhancing public understanding of science.



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.  However, this idea is now challenged by an increasing body of biological evidence which depicts evolutionary phylogenies of terrestrial species separated by many millions of years. Thus, habitat refugia must have existed continuously since Antarctica split from the other Southern Hemisphere continents at least 28 million years ago [Allegrucci et al. 2012], and we hypothesize that endemic species will show unique adaptations to this environment.

Some of the most compelling evidence regarding the biogeography of Antarctic terrestrial organisms comes from insects (Fig. 1).  The flightless midge Belgica antarctica is the southernmost insect and the largest permanent free-living terrestrial animal in Antarctica. It is the only insect endemic to the continent and divergence dates, obtained from RNA sequencing, indicate 49 Myr separation from its closely related/sister midge species that is endemic to sub-Antarctic South Georgia, Eretmoptera murphyi. Thus, rather than being recent colonists with common pre-adaptions to this extreme environment, these species have likely been evolving distinct adaptations in complete isolation for almost 30 million years.

Investigating the genomes and physiology of these species offers incredibly powerful comparative models for probing their evolutionary biology as well as understanding responses to stress [Hayward, 2014; Kelly et al. 2014].  While studies of their ecology combined with microclimate modelling, allow us to determine the capacity of endemic species to cope with climate change, as well as the risks posed by invasive alien species moving into the region (Pertierra et al. 2019).

This project will add a new dimension to an existing grant (2019-2023) between UoB, BAS and USAP, as well as project partners in Chile and France. By comparing a unique sub-set of Antarctic and high latitude southern insects, we aim to identify key genetic features underpinning ecophysiological adaptations to polar habitats. In addition we will determine the ecological impact of recent ‘alien’ invasions under climate change and facilitated by increasing human activity in Antarctica.


University of Birmingham


  • Organisms and Ecosystems


Project investigator

  • Dr Scott Hayward (UoB)



  • Dr Luisa Orsini (UoB)
  • Prof John Colbourne (UoB)
  • Prof Pete Convey: BAS

How to apply


Through our existing international collaborations, we already have samples of B. antarctica, E. murphyi and relevant Patagonian species.  Collections of fresh samples will continue as required throughout the project.  Field work (where feasible involving the DR) may also include collecting microclimate data and community analyses to determine the impact of invasive species, collection of soil samples for biogeochemistry etc.

Next generation sequencing (NGS) and gene expression studies will be performed at UoB using an Illumina HiSeq 2500 platform.  Standardised stress treatments regularly employed in our labs will be used for comparative physiology studies and to determine the impact of future climate scenarios (Everatt et al. 2015).

Training and skills

Hayward, Colbourne and Orsini are all based within the Environmental Change research theme in the School of Biosciences (, providing training in the use of state-of-the art facilities at the vanguard of systems biology and environmental research. The DR will have access to specialist training in stress physiology, ecology, ‘omics techniques and data analysis. The specific focus across these disciplines will be driven by the interests of the DR. The partnership with BAS provides ( extensive training in field research and polar terrestrial ecology. There is huge scope for stakeholder impact and public engagement.

Partners and collaboration

This project builds on a highly successful partnership between Hayward (UoB) and Convey (BAS), with 15 published papers from previous PhD projects (and several others still in preparation).

The collaboration between Hayward, Orsini and Colbourne integrates expertise and multidisciplinary approaches in ecophysiology genomics and transcriptomics.  The partnership with BAS, as well as international collaborators from the USA, Chile and France will provide unique access to field samples and training/experience in planning work in remote and extreme environments.

Further details

Any further questions about the project, please contact:

Dr Scott Hayward

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham



Applications need to be submitted via the University of Birmingham postgraduate portal,, by midnight 11.01.2021. Please first check whether the primary supervisor is within Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, or in Biosciences, and click on the corresponding PhD program on the application page.

This application should include

  • a brief cover letter, CV, and the contact details for at least two referees
  • a CENTA application form
  • the supervisor and title of the project you are applying for under the Research Information section of the application form.

Referee’s will be invited to submit their references once you submit your application, but we strongly encourage applicants to ensure referees are aware of your submission and expecting a reference request from us. Students are also encouraged to visit and explore the additional information available on the CENTA website.

Possible timeline

Year 1

Undertake preliminary physiological assessments and associated gene expression studies. Omics and bioinformatics training.  Possible research visit to project partner lab in USA, Chile or France (travel restrictions permitting).

Initiate engagement with policy and industry project stakeholders, e.g. Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO).

First UK Conference end of Yr 1

Preparation of manuscripts for publication.

Year 2

Work with fresh samples returned to UK, either as part of existing core or collaborator collection plans, or achieved by DR if separate funding secured and subject to travel restrictions.

Ongoing analysis of omics and/or ecological data and preparation/submission of manuscripts.

Organise public understanding of science event based around project.

Year 3

Continued comparative studies with Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species in collaboration with project partners.

International conference and ongoing submission of manuscripts, as well as impact activities/stakeholder engagement.

Further reading

Allegrucci et al. (2012) Evolutionary geographic relationships among orthocladine chironomid midges from maritime Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 106: 258–274.

Everatt et al. (2015) Responses of invertebrates to temperature and water stress: A polar perspective J. Therm. Biol. 54: 118-132.

Hayward (2014) Application of functional ‘Omics’ in environmental stress physiology: insights, limitations, and future challenges. Curr. Op. Insect Sci. 4: 35-41.

Kelly et al. (2014) Compact genome of the Antarctic midge is likely an adaptation to an extreme environment. Nat. Comm. 5:4611.

Pertierra L R, Bartlett J. C., Duffy G., Vega G. C., Hughes K. A., Hayward S. A. L., Convey P., Olalla-Tarraga M. A. and Aragón P. (2019) Integrating correlative and mechanistic niche models with human pressures to assess biological invasion risks in Antarctica: examining the case of an introduced midge. J. Biogeography 47:658-673



The primary impact of COVID-19 would be travel disruption. However, a DR Antarctic field season is not essential for the success of this project – not least because it is dependent on securing additional funding (BAS CASS or other scheme(s)). BAS COVID planning scenarios already include the possibility to collect specific substrate samples required to support our established NSF-NERC project. These samples will be shared with the DR.  Lab work at Birmingham could be disrupted in a worst-case scenario, but even then, there are several elements of the project that could be desk-based, e.g. bioinformatic analyses of omics data or climate niche modelling.