Genetic rescue and the conservation of small populations


Genetic rescue and the conservation of small populations


Project Description


Dr Lewis Spurgin, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Matthew Gage, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Dr James Gilroy, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia


This studentship will address the question of whether small populations can be “genetically rescued”. The student will carry out replicated and controlled genetic rescue experiments to determine the extent and conditions under which immigration improves population performance in the wild. Results from the proposed experiments will be used to form conservation recommendations.

The problem

We are in the midst of an extinction crisis, and urgently require an effective toolbox of conservation actions to save endangered species. One such action is “genetic rescue” – the movement of individuals into small, inbred populations with the aim of increasing genetic diversity and preventing extinction. Genetic rescue is generally viewed as a necessary and effective conservation measure – however, in certain circumstances genetic rescue may not be effective, and could even increase the likelihood of extinction. Indeed, a recent review highlighted that “further research is needed to address remaining uncertainties and to increase confidence in this promising strategy” (Bell et al. 2019). This studentship will address these uncertainties, by performing an in-depth experimental investigation into genetic rescue.

Project aims

You will use carefully designed experiments with the model beetle Tribolium castaneum to determine when and why genetic rescue is an effective conservation tool. Laboratory experiments provide exciting possibilities for directly manipulating levels of inbreeding, population size and gene flow, thereby quantifying the effects of these key parameters in a controlled and replicated manner. You will generate “endangered” experimental populations, and use rescue experiments to determine the extent to which genetic rescue depends on i) who the rescuer is, ii) how much immigration is required, and iii) for how long genetic rescue persists. You will have the opportunity to exploit established links with conservation organisations to use their findings to inform policy and management.


In addition to broad-spectrum training, the student will be trained in eco-evolutionary theory, experimental evolution, genetics, and conservation science.

About you

You will have a good degree in ecology, biology or a related subject. You will have a passion for research, conservation and the natural world.


  • Godwin, J. L., Spurgin, L. G., Michalczyk, Ł., Martin, O. Y., Lumley, A. J., Chapman, T., & Gage, M. J. Lineages evolved under stronger sexual selection show superior ability to invade conspecific competitor populations. Evolution Letters, 2, 511-523.
  • Lumley, A. J., Michalczyk, Ł., Kitson, J. J., Spurgin, L. G., Morrison, C. A., Godwin, J. L., ... & Gage, M. J. (2015). Sexual selection protects against extinction. Nature, 522, 470.
  • Wright, D. J., Spurgin, L.G., Collar, N. J., Komdeur, J., Burke, T., & Richardson, D. S. (2014). The impact of translocations on neutral and functional genetic diversity within and among populations of the Seychelles warbler. Molecular Ecology, 23, 2165-2177.
  • Bell, D. A., et al. (2019). The Exciting Potential and Remaining Uncertainties of Genetic Rescue. Trends in Ecology & Evolution.
  • Hedrick, P. W., Robinson, J. A., Peterson, R. O., & Vucetich, J. A. (2019). Genetics and extinction and the example of Isle Royale wolves. Animal Conservation, 22, 302-309.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area (see
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit, or contact

Studentship Open for Applications

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