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Roles of genetics and environmental variability in animal population resilience: empirical testing in a changing world

Final Report Summary - DISPERSEADAPTSURVIVE (Roles of genetics and environmental variability in animal population resilience: empirical testing in a changing world)

Roles of genetics and environmental variability in animal population resilience: empirical testing in a changing world

The key aim of my project was to determine the respective roles of habitat heterogeneity and fragmentation, and climate variation, as key factors modulating blue tit (Cyanistes careuleus) population genetics and life history.

My work was carried out using a unique study system - blue tits living in nestboxes in a heterogeneous Mediterranean environment and monitored every year during the reproductive season for the past forty years. After two years of research (interrupted by 7 months of maternity leave and 70% part time work upon my return to work), I have initiated two important new lines of research for this study system, namely the use of (1) genomic tools and (2) remotely sensed satellite imagery to quantify genomic and environmental heterogeneity in space, respectively.

Population genomics of the blue tit

Population genetic structure to the spatial heterogeneity of environments is of fundamental interest to evolutionary biology and ecology, in particular when phenotypic differences between populations are observed at biologically small spatial scales. In my work, I applied restriction-site associated DNA sequencing (RAD-Seq) to test whether phenotypically differentiated populations of wild blue tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) breeding in a highly heterogeneous environment exhibit genetic structure, in particular in relation to habitat type. Using ca. 12 000 SNPs exploited in FST, PCA, sPCA and RDA analyses, we found multiple evidence that genetic variation is influenced by geographical distance but also habitat type (deciduous vs. evergreen oaks). Combining these results with available phenotypic data in the next stage of research will offer further scope for the study of ecological and evolutionary processes underlying the observed pattern of isolation by environment.

Blue tit habitat heterogeneity captured with remote sensing tools

Another important line of research was to explore the potential that remotely sensed satellite imagery can offer to quantify environmental heterogeneity, and the extent to which such information can be informative at the individual level (i.e. at the level of any given reproductive event). Because remote sensing is a truly undervalued resource for animal evolutionary ecologists, it often goes unnoticed that depending on the satellite sensor involved, remotely-sensed imagery carries records spanning up to a few decades where the entire continent is captured at a few days intervals. While there is a trade-off between image resolution and frequency of image acquisition, many freely available satellites, such as Landsat / MODIS may carry significant potential in the study of vegetation and animal phenology at fine spatial scales. In preparation of the high spatial and temporal resolution imagery that will be available from Sentinel-2 sensors, we here asked whether vegetation reflectance derived from an analogous sensor, SPOT Take 5, accurately renders habitat heterogeneity observed on the study site. Second, we demonstrated that NDVI reflectance can be used as a surrogate variable when ground data is not available. Third, we evaluated NDVI time series of phenological change in two tree species – the deciduous and evergreen oak – which are key for the reproductive biology of the blue tit, and showed that NDVI time series highlight contrasted phenology of evergreen and deciduous oaks.


All in all, my fellowship was a busy time where intensive work on empirical data could be merged with broader work related to my field of research (by writing reviews and syntheses of my field of research), coupled with women in science and science outreach initiatives, and importantly - successful attempts to apply for further research funding and gaining a permanent research position in Europe. Importantly, this fellowship allowed me to expand my research network of collaborators in genomics and urban ecology, and the successful interactions I developed during this Fellowship will be continued in the next stage of my career.

Work stemming from my Marie Curie proposal resulted in 5 research articles / book chapters / reviews that are either published, in press or in revision. At least 3 additional manuscripts are at varying stages of completion, and will certainly be released in the next 12 months. Moreover, I have also authored / co-authored 3 research papers that were conceptualized before I started my fellowship (all were published in 2012 and 2013).

The lines of research I started with this fellowship were used as inspiration for further research, which resulted in successful applications from the fellow or her collaborators in France (APEGE for Marta Szulkin and Anne Charmantier, ANR for Celine Teplitsky and Anne Charmantier; Marta Szulkin listed as collaborator), the UK (NERC grant for Ben Sheldon; Marta Szulkin listed as project partner) and EU sources of fuding (ERC for Anne Charmantier; Marta Szulkin listed as collaborator).

Finally, this fellowship was a step-in-stone allowing me to reach a position of academic independence: I have successfully gained a habilitation (University of Warsaw) in 2013, and secured a 5 year long grant from the Polish Science Foundation (NCN, worth c. 500 000 euros) to start my own research group in the fall of 2015.