Adaptation to Changing Environments


Since its inception, life on earth has had to adapt to changing environmental conditions - this represents a driving force of evolution.

This module examines how organisms detect and respond to changes in their environment, and reviews the different behavioural, physiological and molecular mechanisms underpinning environmental (stress) adaptation.

Understanding these organism-environment interactions forms the very foundations of ecology. Examples are provided from a range of organisms, but a specific focus is given to terrestrial invertebrates (insects) and plants.

The term “environment” covers a broad spectrum of spatial scales, from changes occurring at the cellular level, to large scale geographic differences between major climatic zones (polar, temperate and tropical).

The process of “change”, and adaptation to these changes, will in turn be discussed across a broad spectrum of timescales. These include:

  • The requirement for rapid adaptation to potentially dramatic shifts in environmental conditions, e.g. when a parasite first enters its host
  • Longer-term changes and adaptations across seasonal timescales, e.g. hibernation/insect diapause
  • Adaptation on an evolutionary timescale, e.g. the ‘Red Queen’ hypothesis, across scenarios of past environmental changes, and extending out to current predictive climate change models

The main aims of this module are to provide students with information, guidance, and access to resources, that will allow them to:

  • Gain an in depth understanding of how organisms respond and adapt to changes in their environment.
  • Recognize that the term “environment” covers a continuum of spatial scales from molecular environments within cells, to broad-scale geographic environments and climatic zones.
  • Appreciate that adaptation to environmental change for an individual organism is transient and occurs across a temporal spectrum of seconds to seasons. For species, adaptation is long-term, but not fixed/permanent, and occurs across a timescale of generations.
  • Interpret the potential impact of climate change on species, communities and ecosystems. Specifically with respect to how the rate of environmental change may limit effective adaptation, and so result in changes in species distribution and abundance patterns
  • Become effective independent learners, capable of analysing and interpreting the scientific literature to help formulate and express their own ideas


  • Lectures


This module is assessed by examination in the main summer examination period (60%) and by two continuous assessment exercises:

  • Comprehension and data handling (20%): Students are presented with ecological information/data from which they are expected to write a summary, analyse data/plot graphs, and discuss relevant theories to explain results.
  • Grant writing exercise (20%): students are given individual topics for which they are exprected to write a short grant application, i.e construct hypotheses, propose methodologies, outline strategic relevance etc.