Ecology and Evolution Research Group

Evolutionary biology is fundamental to our understanding of the origins, diversification and adaptation of life, but it also underpins how species interactions are shaped by millions of years of natural selection and so inform how environmental perturbation affects complex ecosystems.

Thanks to another Leverhume Trust grant, Dr Jon Ellis is embarking on a highly novel study the evolutionary origins of powerful neurotransmitter-like compounds found in many fungi. Using advanced genetic methods, combined with ecological and behavioural experiments, the team seek to establish the role they might play in defending reproductive structures against fungivory and so provide the first mechanistic explanation for the origin of psychedelic compounds in fungi. We look forward to welcoming Dr Kirsty Nicholass and Ilona Flis to get this all started in Spring 2021.

The evolution of vertebrate vision is the focus of Dr Bruno Simões’ research program. Although Bruno recently investigated the loss of ultra-violet sensitive vision in bats (Simões et al., 2019), his main interest is changes in snake vision during ecological transitions (Simões et al., 2016). This includes a study with Dr Kate Sanders on the expansion of colour vision in sea snake lineages through visual pigment polymorphism (Simões et al., 2020). Bruno’s work with recently graduated PhD student Jenna Crowe-Riddell has also elucidated the evolution of novel senses, in this case phototaxis seen in some sea snake species’ tails (Crowe-Riddell et al., 2019).

Dr Chiara Boschetti’s research focuses on understanding how microscopic invertebrates like rotifers, tardigrades and nematodes survive extreme environmental stresses. Using bioinformatics and molecular and cellular biology techniques, she analyses their genomic structure (Rebecchi et al 2020), information that can also be used to facilitate development of novel biotechnological applications (e.g. food preservation and vaccines). Chiara is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms and the evolutionary consequences of horizontal gene transfer (the transfer of a gene from an organism to another which is not a direct descendant). The mechanisms of acquisition, adaptation and regulation of these novel genes is essential to understand the evolution of genomes of single organisms (especially ancient asexual like bdelloid rotifers) and the evolution of an entire ecological community.

Evolutionary Biology - Ecology and Evolution Research Group. muscaria
Evolutionary Biology - Ecology and Evolution Research Group
Evolutionary Biology - Ecology and Evolution Research Group. snake

Selected publications

Crowe‐Riddell J, Simões B, et al (2019) Phototactic tails: Evolution and molecular basis of a novel sensory trait in sea snakes. Molecular Ecology 28: 2013-2028.

Nowell RW, … Boschetti C & Barraclough TG (2018). Comparative genomics of bdelloid rotifers: insights from desiccating and non desiccating species. PLoS Biology 16: e2004830.

Simões B, et al (2016) Visual pigments, ocular filters and the evolution of snake vision. Molecular Biology and Evolution 33: 2483-2495.

Simões B, et al (2019) Blind as a bat? Opsin phylogenetics illuminates the evolution of colour vision in bats. Molecular Biology and Evolution 36: 54-68.

Simões B, et al (2020) Spectral diversification and trans-species allelic polymorphism during the land-to-sea transition in snakes Current Biology 30: 2608-2615

Rebecchi L, Boschetti C & Nelson DR (2020). Extreme-tolerance mechanisms in meiofaunal organisms: a case study with tardigrades, rotifers and nematodes. Hydrobiologia 847: 2779-2799.

Lamont BB, … Hanley ME (2020). Fire as a selective agent for both serotiny and nonserotiny over space and time. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 39: 140-172.


Dr Jon Ellis (PI - with Mick Hanley, George Littlejohn & Mike Thom Co-Is) Wherefore the magic? Investigating the origin of psychedelic compounds in nature. The Leverhulme Trust £242,910. March 2021-Feb 2024.