New genomic markers for predicting lizard responses to climate change

New genomic markers for predicting lizard responses to climate change


Supervisor: Katharina Wollenberg Valero (University of Hull)

Second: Pedro Beltran-Alvarez (University of Hull)

Project partners: Barry Sinervo (University of California Santa Cruz), Donald Miles (Ohio University), Miguel Vences (Braunschweig University of Technology), Ken Storey (Carleton University)

Project description


 “The pivotal question in the debate on the ecological effects of climate change is whether species will be able to adapt fast enough to keep up with their changing environment (…) The rate of adaptation will primarily be set by the rate of microevolution” Visser (2008). 

Zootoca vivipara, photo credit: Anamarija Zagar

Understanding microevolution at the genome level will be the key to predicting whether natural populations will be able to adapt, or become extinct in a rapidly changing climate. We previously found that different groups of vertebrates use only a limited set of candidate genes and gene functions to survive past environmental change through evolutionary adaptation. Many of these genes are involved in the response to abiotic stress. Now, we need to generate a better understanding of how these genes have been involved in responding to changes in recent climate over the past. This will help to determine the potential of current populations to adapt to climate change through microevolution in the upcoming years. 

Changes in temperature anomaly in the study region in the Pyrenees during the past 20 years.

Many lizards, both in the temperate zone as well as in warmer regions, have already undergone recent population declines and -extinctions due to climate change. The lacertid lizard Zootoca vivipara is widely distributed from southern to northern Europe, but some of its southernmost populations have recently begun experiencing climate-related extinction events, due to summer weather exceeding physiological limits. Interestingly, Z. vivipara males use different mating strategies based on throat color (yellow, orange and white), and this trait itself fluctuates with climate. In this project, we will use Z. vivipara as a model for the genomic response to climate change based on selected genes and traits.  

Difference between preferred and experienced temperature in Zootoca vivipara populations, with Pyrenean populations that have experienced recent extinction events shown in red.


Scope of the PhD project 

The successful candidate will have the privilege of utilizing an existing cryo-collection of lizard tissue samples collected over the past 20 years to investigate the differences between “winner” and “loser” genotypes in selected genes. They will also investigate epigenetic modifications – evolution’s “short term fixes” to survive adverse conditions. This will help to determine how permanent any observed changes are. The skills learnt during this project include laboratory and bioinformatics techniques as an important career-relevant skill set. 

Student profile 

We are looking for someone interested in interdisciplinary research, and comfortable with techniques of molecular ecology and handling lizards. The position will suit a student with a degree in molecular biology, molecular ecology, genetics or biology with verifiable experience in genetics. They should normally have, or expect to obtain, at least a 2:1 UK Honours degree (or international equivalent). The student will join an exciting research and training environment with a multitude of projects related to the molecular basis of climate change stress response and adaptation in various systems. They will benefit from our laboratory facilities and in-house High Performance Computer. 

Funding Notes and How to Apply

This project is part of the NERC Panorama Doctoral Training Programme. Appointed candidates will be fully funded for 3.5 years including full tuition fees, and stipend at the UKRI rate  plus a training grant. The University of Hull has agreed to cover the difference between home and international fees, so non-UK students are welcome to apply. The application deadline for the Panorama DTP studentship competition (for October 2021 entry) is Tuesday 5th January 2021, and interviews will take place in late February 2021.



Garcia-Porta, J., et al., Miles, D.B., ….Sinervo, B., …Vences, M… and Wollenberg Valero, KC 2019. Environmental temperatures shape thermal physiology as well as diversification and genome-wide substitution rates in lizards. Nature Communications, 10(1), pp.1-12.

Sinervo, B., Mendez-De-La-Cruz, F., Miles, D.B., Heulin, B., Bastiaans, E., Villagrán-Santa Cruz, M., Lara-Resendiz, R., Martínez-Méndez, N., Calderón-Espinosa, M.L., Meza-Lázaro, R.N. and Gadsden, H., 2010. Erosion of lizard diversity by climate change and altered thermal niches. Science, 328(5980), pp.894-899.

Rodríguez, A., Rusciano, T., Hamilton, R., Holmes, L., Jordan, D. and Wollenberg Valero, K.C., 2017. Genomic and phenotypic signatures of climate adaptation in an Anolis lizard. Ecology and evolution, 7(16), pp.6390-6403.

Visser, M.E., 2008. Keeping up with a warming world; assessing the rate of adaptation to climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 275(1635), pp.649-659.

Wollenberg Valero, K. C., Garcia-Porta, J., Irisarri, I., Feugere, L., Bates, A., Kirchhof, S., Glavaš, O. J., Pafilis, P., Samuel, S. F., Müller, J., Vences, M., Turner, A. P., Beltran-Alvarez, P., & Storey, K. B. (2019). Abiotic environmental adaptation in vertebrates is characterized by functional genomic constraint (p. 726240).