The zoologist helping to protect the future of UK butterflies

Peacock butterfly

UK butterflies are in a fight for survival. 76% of resident and regular migrant species in the UK are suffering long-term declines. Matthew Hayes, PhD student in Zoology, is directly confronting these challenges with his research. His aim is to develop new strategies that will help communities of butterfly species fight the decline. 

Peacock butterfly

Matthew has lived in the UK all his life and grew up near Cambridge. He graduated with a BSc in Natural Sciences from Durham University in 2015 and completed an MPhil in Zoology at Cambridge in 2017. Since then, he has been working as a research assistant at the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology, leading on a public engagement project that has linked historical museum butterfly specimens to modern day conservation.

We spoke to him about the big challenges for butterflies in the UK – and what contribution he wants to make with his research. 

Where did the seeds of your research focus come from? 

I have always been fascinated by insects and I think it is their often alien, otherworldly behaviour that initially caught my attention. However, over the years, I have grown to appreciate how important they are to us, as a food base for a wide range of animals, whilst providing essential ecosystem services such as pollination and improved soil fertility. We rely on insects for crop production and would struggle to survive without them, but they are often overlooked as conservation tends to focus on larger and supposedly more 'charismatic' species. Publicity about the widespread, rapid decline of insects highlights the need for more research to better understand the challenges facing these animals.

Therefore, during my time as a student and working at the Zoology Museum, I have studied the ecology, behaviour and habitat requirements of butterflies and other invertebrates in the UK so that appropriate management can be put in place to maintain biodiversity on our fragmented nature reserves. More recently I have specifically been looking at historical museum specimens, investigating how losses from the past can help guide modern conservation efforts, and engage new audiences with wildlife.

Building on this work, my PhD is now looking to the future, focussing on the impacts of climate change.

What’s the main objective of your research?

Global temperatures are projected to rise by 1.5–2.0°C by 2100 and climate change is set to become one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss into the future. This is especially true in the UK, where habitat loss and fragmentation has left many species restricted to small, isolated reserves and unable to respond to temperature change by moving across the landscape.

Butterflies have a short life span and complex life cycle, making them acutely sensitive to environmental change. This has led to 76% of resident and regular migrant species in the UK suffering long-term declines. However, little research has assessed the sensitivity of whole communities of butterflies to temperature change or ways to buffer species from the negative impacts of temperature shifts within habitats and nature reserves they currently live in.

During my PhD I will use different types of habitat management to see if it is possible to maintain a varied range of temperatures on nature reserves to protect more species from climate change in the future. For example, working with the local Wildlife Trust, I will be creating artificial butterfly banks on areas of nature reserves that were previously flat, and assess the microclimatic temperatures these features create to see whether or not creating these habitats increases species abundance ( The hope is that with more options available to them, butterflies and other species will be able to locate areas suitable for them to survive on, even as regional temperatures continue to rise.

What contribution do you hope to make with your work? 

With butterflies being so sensitive to change, falling butterfly numbers can act as an early warning system for larger issues in the wider environment. In this way butterflies are bioindicator species and their presence can help indicate the health of the environments in which they live. If we can successfully protect them, we can protect whole communities of plants and animals in the process.

I hope my research will result in finding simple, practical management options that can be replicated and expanded on to help protect communities of species against the negative impacts of climate change. This will enable conservation organisations across the country and beyond to act to preserve populations of species on isolated reserves.

What made you choose Wolfson for your PhD?

Having been based in Cambridge for a couple of years before starting my PhD I had the opportunity to visit Wolfson a number of times before joining as the College ran a large number of events for students and their guests. From comedy nights and bops to puppy therapy days and summer barbeques, there always seemed to be an active, friendly community at Wolfson which I was keen to join. Having now been here for a few months I am really happy to find that its friendly reputation is well deserved.

With a Zoology and conservation background, I have also been extremely happy to see how engaged the gardening and site management team is about the prospect of improving grounds for wildlife and doing more to involve the students.

Having taken a few years away from being a student, coming to a predominantly postgraduate college was also a factor in choosing Wolfson. It is good to be around other students who have chosen to come back to study after an undergraduate degree or period of time away and share that experience in common.

What other interests do you have outside of your academic work?

When I am not carrying out research at the Zoology Museum, I really enjoy working with the public engagement team. I will often do minibeast hunts with kids or stick insect handling sessions to engage them with invertebrates and change perceptions away from them being ‘creepy crawlies’.

To relax, I enjoy watching films and getting to the cinema when I can. I also enjoy running and hiking to clear my head and this June I am taking on the UK National Three Peaks Challenge, where I will be trying to climb the highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales in under 24 hours.

What's the one book that has made the biggest impact on you? 

The History of Bees is a book that has stuck with me and I would recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the importance of insects. It follows three fictional timelines but covers a very real and quite scary message.

One storyline follows an 1850s biologist developing a new kind of bee hive, while another follows a modern-day farmer dealing with the collapse of bee populations, as is actually happening today in many areas. The final storyline is set in the near future, in a world where bees and pollinators have died out, leaving vast areas of the world abandoned and the population on the brink of starvation.

That might sound a bit bleak, but it is a really interesting exploration of what could actually happen if we don’t take better care of our planet. Hopefully it leaves one with a greater appreciation for the little animals that run the world.

You can view a new exhibition Matthew has worked on at the Zoology Museum now: 'Butterflies Through Time' shows how 13 butterfly species have changed over the last 200 years, and displays specimens not usually on show. Free entry, open until 18 September.