Esme Ashe-Jepson

2020 PhD Studentship
Cool as a caterpillar
Investigating the effects of temperature on butterflies throughout their life cycle
Cambridge Conservation Initiative


Climate change is one of the greatest threats for ecosystems and wildlife. The goal of my research is to develop our understanding of how animals respond to changing temperatures which is critical to informing effective conservation plans. 

Butterflies are particularly well studied, however much of our understanding of the way they respond to temperature variation is based on the adult life stage. We know little about their responses as caterpillars, which are less able to change their position to cool down or warm up in adverse weather conditions.

By focusing my research on caterpillars, I address this knowledge gap and help drive conservation action and nature reserve management to protect these species. 

Small tortoiseshell butterfly. Photo: Edgar Turner
Evidence-based conservation

I work closely with the Wildlife Trust of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Northamptonshire to help identify species or groups of butterflies that may be at greater risk under climate change.

I also investigate the potential uses of experimental landscaping. Together with the Wildlife Trust we have created replicated experimental banks on two nature reserves to see if butterflies are able to use these artificial areas to better handle changing temperatures. 

The results of my research are directly fed back to the Wildlife Trust to hone active management in their nature reserves. Knowing that my data has direct consequences is very important and exciting to me. 

Esme with the Wildlife Trust BCN team for the 30th anniversary of the Pegsdon Hills Nature Reserve, 2022. Photo: Esme-Ashe Jepson
Community participation

Public engagement is a big part of what I do.

I became interested in public engagement and education as a School Outreach Volunteer for the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). I used to visit schools to take children outside and get them excited about nature. Years later, through my PhD, I work with volunteers from the Wildlife Trust and the areas surrounding my study sites.

I talk to people from different walks of life about what I do and why it matters. In return I hear different stories from residents about what the local nature reserves and the butterflies mean to them.

After my PhD I want to stay in research that is closely tied to conservation. I love being outdoors all summer in some of the most beautiful nature reserves I have seen in the UK. I am very lucky to do what I do.

I hope that engaging the public with my research, and letting people see for themselves the changes we can make together, will inspire everyone to take a more active role in managing land around them.

More about Esme’s work:

Researcher profile

Butterflies Through Time Exhibition (March – Sept 2022) at the Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge

Esme Ashe-Jepson is a 2020 CCI Knowledge-Exchange student. The Knowledge-Exchange Studentship Programme aims to produce insights that advance both impactful conservation research and effective applied conservation, utilising Cambridge Conservation Initiative’s network of leading academics and conservation practitioners.