Ongoing projects

Neanderthal Palaeoecology: the whens, hows, and whys of a species’ journey

I am the nominated researcher and co-writer of this Leverhulme Research Grant to Andrea Manica (University of Cambridge).

I will investigate the role of climate in shaping the population dynamics of Neanderthals over their whole temporal and geographic range. I will also incorporate cultural information to see if and how different Neanderthal populations changed and adapted their behaviour in response to climatic fluctuations. To do so, we gathered an interdisciplinary team composed of archaeologists, ecologists, paleoclimate modellers and cultural evolution specialists, including Katerina Harvati (Tuebingen), Francesco D’Errico (Bordeaux) and William E. Banks (Bordeaux).

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Reconstruct past niche dynamics

I have developed a pipeline that reconstructs the distribution of a species through time, based on its occurrences in archaeological sites and palaeoclimatic reconstructions (1). On top of that, the method also allows testing for changes in the ecological niches through time.

I have used it to investigate how four European ungulate species reacted to the climate turnovers that interested the end of the Pleistocene and the beginning of the Holocene (between 40,000 and 8,000 years ago) (1). I am now applying the same method to different species and time periods.


  1. M. Leonardi, F. Boschin, P. Boscato, A. Manica (2020 and submitted) Following the niche: reconstructing 32,000 years of niche dynamics in four European ungulate species bioRxiv 2020.12.07.401133

Species distribution modelling through time based on present-day occurrences

European robin (Erithacus rubecula), picture by Michela Leonardi
European robin (Erithacus rubecula), picture by Michela Leonardi

I have been reconstructing the distribution through the last 50,000 years of more than 100 Holarctic bird species (1) based on present-day observations and palaeoclimatic reconstructions (pipeline). Eleanor Miller (formerly at the University of Cambridge) has been investigating if the changes in the potential ranges through time are correlated to the changes in effective population size, as reconstructed by Bayesian Skyline plots. No correlation has been found, suggesting caution in the interpretation of such pieces of evidence alone.

I have then been using the same method to reconstruct the distribution of the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia), in the last 21,000 years (2). The range reconstructions have then been used as a mask to perform climate-informed spatial genetic models (CisGEM). The results showed that the present-day genetic structure of the species is linked to the post-glacial expansion dynamics, and not differential glacial refugia. I am now applying the same method to other species and contests.

Preprints/Peer-reviewed articles

  1. E. F. Miller, R. E. Green, A. Balmford, R. Beyer, M. Somveille, M. Leonardi, W. Amos, A. Manica (2021) Bayesian Skyline Plots disagree with range size changes based on Species Distribution Models for Holarctic birdsMolecular Ecology. 30 (16), 3993-4004. pdf
  2. E. F. Miller, M. Leonardi, R. Beyer, M. Krapp, M. Somveille, G. L. Somma, P. Maisano Delser, A. Manica (2021 and submittedPost-glacial expansion dynamics, not refugial isolation, shaped the genetic structure of a migratory bird, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). bioRxiv 2021.05.10.443405

How climate and migrations impacted human genetic diversity through time

While in the Evolutionary Ecology Group, led by Prof Andrea Manica, I have been taking part in different projects investigating the role of climate and migrations through time in shaping the genetic diversity of humans.

Pierpaolo Maisano Delser (formerly at the University of Cambridge) was the first author of a study (1) detailing how climate and topography played a major role in shaping human migrations and the associated patterns of genetic variation from the Out of Africa until the Neolithic.

Betti et al. investigate more in detail the spread of Neolithic farmers in Europe, showing how the speed of their migrations and interactions with local foragers were linked to how much different areas allowed the cultivations of cultivars from the Near East.

Finally, together with Alessandro Viganò and Vittorio Di Piero (Medical Doctors at the University of Rome La Sapienza) we wrote an opinion piece (3) to make aware the medical community of the evolutionary/climatic bases of the worldwide distribution of migraine, in order to better inform epidemiological studies.

Preprints/Peer-reviewed articles

  1. P. Maisano Delser, M. Krapp, R. Beyer, E. Jones, E. F. Miller, A. Hovhannisyan, M. Parker, V. Siska, M. T. Vizzari, E. J. Pearmain, I. Imaz-Rosshandler, M. Leonardi, G. L. Somma, J. Hodgson, E. Tysall, Z. Xue, L. Cassidy, D. G. Bradley, A. Eriksson, A. Manica (2021 and submittedClimate and mountains shaped human ancestral genetic lineages. bioRxiv 2021.07.13.452067.
  2. L. Betti, R. Beyer, E. R. Jones, A. Eriksson, F. Tassi, V. Siska, M. Leonardi, P. Maisano-Delser, L.K. Bentley, P.R. Nigst, J. Stock, R. Pinhasi, A. Manica. (2020) Climate shaped how Neolithic farmers and European hunter-gatherers interacted during a major slowdown from 6,100 BCE to 4,500 BCE Nature Human Behaviour 4, 1004–1010 read-only access
  3. A. Viganò, A. Manica, V. Di Piero, M. Leonardi (2019) Did going North give us migraine? An evolutionary approach on understanding latitudinal differences in migraine epidemiologyHeadache 59(4) download