Interview with a social insect scientist: Claire Morandin

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

CM: My name is Claire Morandin, and I am a postdoctoral researcher on an EMBO fellowship at the University of Lausanne, but currently on maternity leave – my second daughter was born in July. When I am not taking care of her, I am mainly spending my time conducting research that focuses on social insect genomics. In general, I am interested in understanding how complex phenotypic traits arise and evolve across species. And more specifically, I study the evolution and maintenance of the female castes in ants. Recently I started working on honey bees, too, trying to answer similar questions in the evolution of female castes. I got hooked on bioinformatics during the work for my Ph.D. thesis, and I use genomics tools such as RNA sequencing, comparative genomics, evolutionary analysis, gene co-expression networks, and methylation to understand these complex mechanisms.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

CM: After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I took a year off and volunteered with the CNRS to work in Zimbabwe, basically being a field assistant helping scientists with their experiments. Having had this experience, I discovered my passion for research and decided that I also wanted to conduct my own research experiments and become a scientist myself. This decision led me to continue with a master’s at Uppsala University in Sweden and a Ph.D. degree at the University of Helsinki in Finland. It took me a few more years of studying and meeting the right mentors to discover the exciting world of social insect research.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

CM: Before last year I would have definitely answered ants, probably Formica ants. However, honey bees are cool too and way easier to study. They can develop from eggs to adults in the lab, and I am fully taking advantage of this feature at the moment. So, I would go for honey bees being my favorite social insects now. Also, as a side product of keeping bees, you get plenty of honey!

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

CM: The best moment was my Ph.D. defence; it was challenging but also a lot of fun to wrap up four years of hard work and present what I had accomplished during these years. This process makes you realize all the smaller puzzle pieces coming together and revealing new bigger conclusions. I also had a great discussion with my opponent, Dr. Seirian Sumner. You do not know how enjoyable a defence is before you get the chance to have such a long and stimulating discussion with a great opponent. Also, having all my family and friends and people who encouraged me through the years together in one room to celebrate with me made this day so very special (and well, the party afterwards was pretty great too!).

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

CM: I sadly do not do much outreach, besides communicating my own and research I find generally interesting and exciting over social media. However, I occasionally teach bioinformatics and try to spread my enthusiasm for this field to the students. I have also recently gained an interest in gender studies. With a colleague, Dr. Luke Hollman, we recently published a paper showing that researchers tend to collaborate with same-gendered colleagues leading to further discrepancies between genders in life science. I think this is an important and very relevant topic in science, although not related to my actual research. With such insight, we can raise awareness of the gender gap in research, which eventually may contribute to making this gap smaller and hopefully disappear in the decades to come.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

CM: There is so much we still do not understand about social insects, and that makes my work very exciting. Despite plenty of social insect genomes out there, we are still trying to put pieces together to determine whether common mechanisms are behind caste differences across all social insects. More comparative genomics work will be essential to shed light on such important evolutionary questions.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

CM: I would think that some of the biggest questions are the ones related to the origin and evolution of eusociality across the phylogeny tree. However, from my current work point of view, I would say that the role of methylation in caste differentiation also generates lots of debates that I like to fuel up with more data and findings from my work.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies or sports?

CM: I love running and baking, and recently took a significant interest in sewing – it helps me calm down when everything else around me spins so fast.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

CM: When things get tough, I like to go outside for long walks or runs with very loud music to forget about everything. And then I come home to two happy daughters who only want to play and laugh, and I quickly forget about the tough things because making them happy is what matters most. Having a life outside of science – a place to go when things get tough – helps me go through the stress and the hardship of a scientist’s life.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

CM: A machete, a water bottle and a book (would finally have time to read a grown-up book, and not just children’s books).

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

CM: My collaborator and mentor Sasha (Dr. Mikheyev) has had the most considerable influence on my science career. He made me go from qPCR to RNAseq, and I never looked back. Because of him, I got hooked on bioinformatics.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

CM: Be patient – very patient – and do not forget that science is fantastic but that it is not everything in life, so when it gets tough, you always need something else that can make you happy. That was more general advice for being a scientist, I guess. For social insects, there is not much to say. They are fantastic, go for it!

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

CM: Japan, I have had the chance to visit Sasha’s lab at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) eight times already, and I love going back there every year. Okinawa is so beautiful!

Interview with a social insect scientist: Edith Invernizzi

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Edith Invernizzi, and I am a Ph.D. student in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), studying collective behaviour and self-organisation. I am a theoretical modeller, mainly, but I believe that all models should be built in a constant feedback loop with real data. I try to integrate laboratory and field experiments in my work as much as possible.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

Since I started working on models for an undergraduate project, I have been interested in the evolutionary dynamics of behaviour. It’s this that ultimately led me to collective behaviour and ants in my Ph.D.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

Ants, because of the immense ecological range this genus has been able to colonise. They are a perfect case study for different species that can independently evolve similar collective behaviour mechanisms when the environmental context is different.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

I’m very early on in my research, so I have a limited range of experiences to draw from. But I do know what the best moment has been. When I started looking at social insect collective nest building, I came to the hypothesis that self-organised activity could be seen as continuous assessment of the environment, a homeostatic mechanism in response to constant fluctuations. I then discovered the body of literature that proposes precisely that frame of interpretation. I felt that I was learning how to understand behavioural data and, most of all, that my way of understanding was meaningful to other scientists.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

I personally do not do much outreach, but I try focusing on how social insects make collective decisions whenever asked about my research by a non-scientist. I think decision making is a fascinating behaviour that every human can relate to, but that is often considered only from an individual perspective. I try to use this example to give a different point of view.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

The importance of individual-level variation when we think of colonies and eusocial species. There are suggestions that behavioural variation within a colony causes different individuals to exploit different resources. Similarly, in behaviours such as collective building, workers with varying levels of susceptibility to different cues might initiate changes in the structure that are important for short-term adaptation. I suspect that understanding the role of within-group variation is not only crucial for helping disentangle environmental adaptation but also has potential applications in fields such as robotics and engineering – for instance, in Ant Colony Optimisation (ACO) algorithms.

From a ‘genetics versus plasticity’ perspective, it is interesting to study how much of this variation derives from allelic genetic differences, in poly-mated queen or multiple-queen colonies, and how much from epigenetic factors. For intra-colony competition, the question becomes evolutionary: is there an ‘optimal’ level of inter-individual variation that maximises colony fitness? How might mating systems, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms have evolved under selection to reach and maintain such level?

To start scratching the surface of these questions, we need more tools that facilitate individual identification and individual behaviour records. Developing more advanced movement and ethological tracking methods (the latter automatically tracking behavioural events in a video recording), for example, is essential if we want to obtain a large amount of data with reliable sample sizes and make this fine level of individual detail in group behaviour studies the norm. More behavioural studies done in the field are also necessary to match the observed variation to the multiple factors that it might respond to, in a complex environmental context.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

Probably the questions about cognition. How advanced are insect cognitive capacities? Are we underestimating them or overestimating them? What is the relationship between individual cognition and collective cognition at eusocial colony-level?

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

A Time for Everything, by K.O. Knausgaard. If you are into rational psychological analysis and minute behavioural details but still like to find an overarching narrative when you look at life experiences, then Knausgaard is the author for you.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies or sports?

I practice martial arts, read contemporary literature, and enjoy planning exciting activities. I prefer a good stand-up comedy show, live or on TV, over a holiday trip anytime.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

When nothing seems to work, I remind myself that science and my Ph.D. are only one aspect of my life, and I try to put more energy into others. If I meet a wall in my research, then I create something else or break down a barrier elsewhere. Working on other projects just remind me that I can produce an output I am enthusiastic about and renew my creativity.

In tough times, it is focusing on what I find exciting about the work, the goal, or the challenge that keeps me going. But I must schedule some fun activities throughout the week that break the tension and give me fresh energy; a good climb or stand-up comedy always do the job.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

A Swiss knife, a water flask, and a diary with a pen attached to it. The first two for surviving and the third one to keep my sanity. I enjoy spending time alone, and if I have the time, I might as well keep track of my thoughts.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

Definitely my undergraduate supervisor and master’s co-supervisor, R.T. Gilman. He has given me a passion for dissecting dynamics, and he is the one who introduced me to modelling.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

Be patient. Be passionate. And always work with a behavioural scientist if you are a theoretician. They bring you down from your matrices into the real world.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

I did my Master of Philosophy fieldwork in the area around Lugu Lake, in South Western China. It is close to the most beautiful place I have ever been to, and I hope that its landscape and culture have remained unspoiled.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Diana Urcuqui Rojas

 IS: Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Diana Urcuqui Rojas, I completed my B. Sc in Biology at the Universidad del Valle (Colombia) last year. I love social insects! For my bachelor thesis, I studied the social structure and nest distribution of the ant Gnamptogenys bisulca in four different populations from natural montane forests in Colombia. For this study, I determined nest distribution and composition, and examined differences among castes in terms of morphology (mesosome) and reproductive systems. In this project I also studied the mites hold on the ants, so actually I’m studying mites found inside of G. bisulca nests. I’m also working in little projects and looking for an internship or enrolling in a masters program to continue in this field.

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IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

My love for social insects started with ants. When I was a biology student I helped another student in her bachelor’s thesis. She was working with nesting strategies of Ectatomma ruidum. That first exposure to ants motivated me to take an elective course named “social insects” with professor Patricia Chacón. This course was fascinating, was awesome to learn about complexes societies between little individuals. I learned about natural history, evolution, ecology, taxonomy and behaviour of ants, termites, bees and wasps. Also we learned some things about some communal insects.  After that, I realized that I wanted to carry on studying social insects.

La Celia- Colombia

La Celia – Colombia

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

Ants are my favourite, especially army ants, because of their moving colonies and aggressive behaviour. Also, I know the Eciton sp. colonies and I think that their soldiers are so pretty! Moreover, lately, I’m became interested in bees because of their social dynamics (species with individuals living alone and in colonies), which can allowed us to conduct studies that we can’t do with ants.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

I love the study of natural history and I think that the best moment is when I started my bachelor’s thesis. From that moment I began to see with my own eyes all that I have read about ants, especially how organized a colony can be, how the workers keep the brood’s lives and the morphological differences among the castes. All this was really fascinating and exciting to me. Also, currently I’m really excited because my first publication (Social structure of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Formicidae: Ectatomminae) in tropical forests)!

(Top left) Workers of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Top right) G. bisulca workers with different mesosome. (Bottom) G. bisulca ergatoid with two ocelli

Gnamptogenys bisulca's nest

G. bisulca’s nest.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

Up to now I have taught some things to my close relatives and friends and in one chance, with other biology students, we explained an insects collection to an audience in the library, we had different insects, including an Atta sp. colony. Normally, when I talk about this group, I try to explain some general aspect of their biology that is captivating and similar to humans. It’s awesome when you realized that we have some in commons, we are both social!

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

Regarding Gnamptogenys bisulca, I’m interested in the morphological differences between ergatoids: It would be great to compare what I found (see supplementary material in “Social structure of Gnamptogenys bisulca (Formicidae: Ectatomminae) in tropical forests”) with ergatoids morphology from colonies of other places. Behavioural studies would also be interesting, to analyse how the reproductive queens manipulate the others queens in a colony. Also, I would like to confirm the absence of polydomus in this species.  Concerning other groups, I would like to work with a species that have individuals living in solitary and in groups, and do comparative analyses using different tools (behavioural, natural history and molecular), this would be amazing, I could do it with  bees. I think that any study that make me understand the sociality in a species is interesting to me, I’m open to the possibilities.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

Those questions related to the origin and evolution of the eusociality in different groups generate the biggest debate. Also, the supercolonies found in some ants open a discussion of what’s a true colony, and therefore, what is the right scale to study these species.  I hope as a result of new research in different species, we can answer these questions in a near future. Moreover, it’s also important to take into consideration the different tools that we have to study social insects, that are equally informative and have a similar likelihood of mistake. Sometimes we just focus in one and think that is the only way to understand something.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

The last book was “the social conquest of earth”. I think it’s a good book, despite the polemic content, because it’s easily to understand for the general public and its very informative: Wilson explain the eusociality in our species and compares it with the eusociality of social insects.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

I love spending time with my family, hiking, biking and dancing. I’m learning bellydance and also Indian dance. Moreover, actually I also want to learn somethings about astronomy.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

I try to be positive all the time. Hard moments always happens to everybody and always you have the option to learn from them, and use them to your advantage for professional and personal growth.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

Thinking just in surviving I would bring a penknife, a strong rope and a powerful lighter. For me these are the basic elements in a critical situation: with a penknife I can cut different kind of materials, and build others tools. A strong rope is useful to tie up something and keep it together, or drag it, also to build a refuge and to climb a slope. And a lighter to cook, keep warm, and to shoo wilds animals.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

I have had incredible teachers but my love for social insects wouldn’t be possible without Patricia Chacón, Inge Armbrecht and James Montoya.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

For me is important to be perseverant, disciplined and goal oriented. I also think that having a second choice is always a good idea.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Sean O’Donnell

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Sean O’Donnell, and it has been since the day I was born. I spend much of my time conducting research that focuses on social insects. Ongoing projects in my lab involve various combinations of thermal physiology, population genetics, community ecology, social interactions/division of labor, and brain plasticity/evolution, working with army ants, theory/equations, dampwood termites, paper wasps, and antbirds. I have dabbled in bumble bees (delightful), leaf cutter ants (bumbling vegetarians), and stingless bees (yes, but they bite). I also teach- in the field and in the tropics as often as possible. I was a Psychology (!) Professor for 15 years until 2011, when I moved to Biology and BEES (Biodiversity Earth & Environmental Science) at Drexel U. in Philadelphia.

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IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

I didn’t really grow up as a bug-kid; I was more of a broad-ranging junior naturalist, though I have been obsessed (I say healthily so) with Amazonia since age 5. I took AP Biology (on purpose) in high school and majored in Biology in college. A senior thesis project on dragonfly nymph ecology opened my eyes to the wonders of planet insects. After a failed foray into plant population biology graduate work, I found my way to an NSF-funded RA-ship with Bob Jeanne (Wisconsin) to study paper wasps in Costa Rica (to whoever backed out of this position on Bob at the last minute- you have my sincere gratitude!). It was in graduate school that I got my first real exposure to multi-level selection and colony-level adaptations- my conceptual drivers- and I really got hooked on social insects during my 1988 Organization for Tropical Studies course. I did an independent project on Polistes instabilis wasps; I fell hard for wasps and never lost that passion.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

I do have faves, but in different categories. Overall amazingness plus mystery: the army ant Labidus coecus. Joy to watch & collect data upon: Polistes wasps. Cutest: Nectarinella championi wasps. Best nest: Leipomeles dorsata wasps. At the other end of the scale, after working intimately with Solenopsis fire ants recently, I would say they are rather miserable (I still have scars).

Best nest

Best nest: Red arrow indicates a nest of the paper wasp Leipomeles dorsata on the underside of a leaf blade in Yasuni, Ecuador. The tan area is the dome-like envelope of the nest; note the indented lines, with black material built in, that closely resemble the veins of the supporting leaf.

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Cutest: Workers of the paper wasp Nectarinella championi peer from their nest entrance on a tree trunk near Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Joy

Joy to work with: Polistes instabilis paper wasps on a newly-founded nest in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

I will never forget the feeling of raw inspiration on the sunny day when I was dining at a Monteverde, Costa Rica Friends’ Meeting potluck many years ago. I was sitting in an open spot enjoying good food and good company, when a small swarm of subterranean Labidus coecus army ants emerged at my feet to grab dropped bits of yummy home-cooked chow. “Wow,” I thought, “army ants really don’t like hot sunny areas. The nearest shade is many meters away. These gals travel underground… I bet doing that buffers them from the sun, and allowed them to get way out here in the open to this food…” My research program is still building on that moment.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

I regularly work as a field consultant with natural history film productions, most recently in flooded forest in Amazonian Peru. That was an awesome site. I have worked both on- and off-camera with seven different natural history film crews, beginning in 1998. Until my recent fire ant gig, and a cameo with leaf cutters, I have been type-caste (pardon the social insect pun) as an army ant expert. That would be less good if I did not really love army ants, and the tropics. I like to think that the world’s stock of army ant natural history film making would be depauperate if not for my input. The possibility of reaching millions of viewers globally, and awakening their inner army-ant loving fiends, really floats my boat.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s important for future research?

Well, I won’t give away my hottest current ideas, but it sure seems like social insects are SUPERB systems for analyzing directional climate change effects, from the organism to the ecosystem. I think understanding the interplay of individual physiology and colony performance in varying environments is a fascinating area for exploration. See my recent (20117) theory paper with Kaitlin Baudier on this topic: Current Opinion in Insect Science 22:85-91.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

A golden oldie…How do we make the evolutionary jump from solitary to obligately social?

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

I just finished Teddy Roosevelt’s 1914 book about exploring an unknown river in Amazonia in the company of the legendary Colonel Rondon (Through the Brazilian Wilderness). I love exploration/travel/adventure writing, and this was a good tale. Some crazy things happened out there in the then-unknown wilds: near-starvation, murder, insane rapids, indigenous people attacking, and it was done by an ex-US president! Who could imagine?

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

I gravitate toward outdoor activities- hiking, birding, canoeing, fishing. I love the ocean and international travel. I also sing bass in a local chorus. I am not much into professional sports, except that I am a rabid life-long Philly sports fan. Hello, Bryce Harper, wake up!

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

I turn to coffee, mostly. And I don’t give up easily; I try to find another angle.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

  1. My family, so they could do most of the work. Or the Darma Initiative staff.
  2. Good set of metal tools. Building, harvesting, cutting…
  3. Small nuclear sub, in case we decide to leave.

IS: Who do you think has had the greatest influence on your science career?

My Ph.D. advisor, Robert Jeanne- true wasp expert, skilled writer, careful and critical thinker, patient and inspiring mentor, tropical biologist. Bob also mixes a mean Manhattan.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

Spend time watching your study animal(s). Observation often pays off in ideas.

Why are wee wasps big-headed?

A blog post highlighting the article by O’Donnell in Insectes Sociaux.

By Sean O’Donnell

Wasps in the family Vespidae are attractive to social insect researchers because they present nearly the full range of animal social structures, from solitary living species to species with some of the largest, most complex colonies known.  It has long been recognized that some social species of vespid wasps, such as Vespinae (hornets and yellow jackets), have strong caste-related allometry, or differences in body size and shape. Queens and workers are typically distinct to the point that they are readily recognized with the bare eye- there is no need to pull out the micrometer to distinguish a yellow jacket queen from her workers. Some other social vespids also have caste allometry (O’Donnell 1998).

Another potentially fascinating aspect of vespid wasp diversity is the wide range of body sizes exhibited by this group, yet species differences in body allometry in this family seem to have been largely overlooked by researchers.

In a recent pair of studies, my lab explored the evolution of brain versus body allometry among Vespidae species (O’Donnell & Bulova 2017; O’Donnell et al. 2018). We found that smaller species had larger brains relative to their body size. This work inspired me to examine whether vespid wasp species differ in body allometry.

When we analyzed brain-body allometry, we used head capsule volume as our measure of species mean body size. Some reviewers suggested this was not the best approach: what if wasps’ heads varied allometrically with overall body size, and head allometry drove the apparent brain-body patterns? This could happen, for example, if smaller-bodied species had relatively small heads, and their brain size was constant, relative to overall body size. These comments inspired me to test whether wasp head capsule size varied with overall body size. My new findings on wasp head-to-body allometry show that not only were our brain allometry findings supported, they were conservative.

To study head-body allometry, I started by measuring species mean dry weights of the main body trunk (thorax plus abdomen) for the subjects of the brain studies. Because we had photographed the head capsules of the subjects of our brain allometry studies, I had head volume measurements for some species. I added new data and increased the sample size by weighing the head capsules of some of the species for which I had volume data, and I measured both head and body weights for several additional species. I included solitary vespids (potter wasps; Eumeninae), species from the subfamily Vespinae, and species from all tribes of eusocial subfamily Polistinae. The species examined ranged from some of the largest Vespidae (Vespa hornets, and the giant Asian paper wasp Polistes gigas) to some of the smallest swarm-founding Vespidae (Protopolybia and Leipomeles).

Importantly, I found that the two measures of head size, head dry weight and head volume, were tightly isometrically correlated. I then asked how head size varied with body size. All analyses supported a strongly significant negative head-body allometry, in other words, smaller-bodied species had relatively larger heads. This pattern held for head weight, head volume, and when only social species were included in the analysis. I used a special analysis to account for the potential effects of species relatedness on the negative head-body allometry, and the pattern was still highly significant. The magnitude of relative head-size variation was striking: in one of the largest species, head capsule weight approached a mere 5% of body weight, while in a small species, the head comprised nearly 30% of body weight.

Adult female Mischocyttarus sp. (left, a medium-sized species) and Protopolybiaholoxantha (right, a smaller species). I scaled the photos so the wasps appear to be about the same body length, and the relatively large head capsules of the Protopolybia workers are evident. The red scale bars represent approximately 1 cm in each photo.

I believe the strong interspecific head-body allometry in Vespidae is surprising, given that wasps are flying animals. Large heads could affect the wasps’ ability to fly by altering aerodynamics or by shifting the center of gravity. What factors might drive the evolution of allometrically enlarged heads in smaller species?

Our previously published brain size data suggest an answer. Remember that brain size relative to head size increased as smaller body size evolved. Since we now know that smaller wasps also have relatively larger heads, this means that the negative allometry of vespid brain size outpaces the negative allometry of head size. In other words, smaller species’ brains make up an ever-increasing portion of their relatively larger heads. Again, variation in the magnitude of brain size to head size was dramatic: brain volumes ranged from about 2% of head volume in the largest species, up to 12% of head volume in the smallest species.

In other vertebrate and arthropod lineages, the relatively large brains of the smallest species are associated with modification of heads including thinning of skulls (vertebrates) or head capsule walls (arthropods), and with reductions and bodily displacements of tissues such as muscles. Have the relatively large brains of vespid wasps driven similar changes in head capsule structure or physiology? Perhaps the need to house large brains has affected the behavior and ecology of small vespid wasps: limits on head musculature or head cuticle thickness might limit the wasps’ abilities to bite and chew building materials or food. If so, the need to house relatively large brains could set biomechanical lower limits on body size evolution in the family.

 References

O’Donnell S (1998) Reproductive caste determination in eusocial wasps (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Annual Review of Entomology 43:323-346.

O’Donnell S, Bulova SJ (2017) Development and evolution of brain allometry in wasps (Vespidae): Size, ecology and sociality. Current Opinion in Insect Science 22:54-61.

O’Donnell S, Bulova SJ, Barrett M, Fiocca K (2018) Size constraints and sensory adaptations affect mosaic brain evolution (paper wasps- Vespidae: Epiponini). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 123:302-310.

 

Interview with a social insect scientist: Graham Birch

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

GB: My name’s Graham. I’m a master’s graduate from the University of Exeter, coming to the end of a year working as a volunteer research assistant in South Africa for the Kalahari Meerkat Project. I’ll be starting a Ph.D. back at Exeter in September on Banded Mongooses.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

GB: I’ve always been interested in sociality and how it’s evolved, and ants specifically can form such huge and complex groups, with multiple distinct castes. Many species are intensely territorial, with group size and make-up largely determining success; therefore, conflict may have been a significant driver in the evolution of ant societies. But the threat of competition is not necessarily ever-present and being ready for battle all the time may be wasteful, so an intriguing question is whether coordination and behaviour of these complex groups can plastically respond to the level of threat in the local environment in response to cues, which is the subject of our paper.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

GB: Termites moult multiple times before reaching their adult forms, but some primitive species can moult backward in time to a younger form! They’re therefore able to plastically change their development in response to the colony running out of resources. They can also switch development between different castes if they like to a certain extent, which I just find super cool.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

GB: I haven’t done too much of my own research so far, but I (but mostly my dad) did start a meme where scientists left Amazon reviews for items they used in their research (but not based on the intended purpose). Started when we had the idea of using tea strainers to protect ants we introduced into another colony, and my dad left a review about how great a capsule for ants these tea strainers were (anything to get his ranking up!), which the tea drinking public found a bit odd/hilarious. It became the top review, started a twitter trend of other scientists leaving similar reviews, which got picked up by The Washington Post (easy to find on Google!). I even did a couple of phone interviews. It was all very surreal but definitely memorable!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

GB: Again it’s a bit early in my career to answer this question, but I have lead turtle conservation tours in North Cyprus, and Meerkat research tours in the Kalahari, which did involve communicating the science of what we were doing to the public. I hope to do some demonstrating and maybe teaching during my Ph.D.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

GB: Broadly the big issue, not just for social insects, is climate change. Does the level of sociality mean these species are more able to shift their ranges or, if they can’t, can they deal with new competitors or enemies that can (as well as changes in temperature itself), over other less social species?

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

GB: I fear I may be a bit naive at my career stage and may not have enough experience on social insect research generally (beyond group conflict) to comment on this. However, what I have found to be controversial is the definition of eusocial when looking at non-insect taxa. For example, there was a lot of buzz about naked mole rats being the first eusocial mammal due to their large groups and division of labour among reproductives and workers, but recently many have turned against this. You could even say the same for humans where, even though we don’t have fixed caste determination, we have orders of magnitude larger and more complex societies then eusocial insects in terms of numbers and the division of labour we see in the variety of jobs we can pursue. Maybe it’s just unhelpful to use the term for non-insects.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

GB: Ultrasociety. Phenomenal book looking at how human societies have changed and evolved from egalitarian hunter-gathers to incredibly unequal archaic societies led by God kings, to how religion and war shape these into the relatively more equal modern societies we see today.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

GB: Badminton, swimming, diving, and travelling.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

GB: Try to not have your research as the only focus taking up all of your time. Get involved in a sport, volunteer, or just something to focus on that isn’t science / your degree, so when you do get stuck you have something else to work on that refreshes you for when you come back to your science.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

GB: Anyone at the Kalahari Meerkat project, or who went with me on my expedition to Madagascar over a year ago, can vouch for me when I say I’ve almost already done this, but on the island of an isolated research base (days of travelling away from the nearest major town with no communication with the outside world in the case of Madagascar). Anyways, I’d bring a Kindle with a vast library of books so I can read to pass the time, a snorkel and fins (since I’m on an island I might as well enjoy the marine life), and a Camelback so that I don’t have to carry a water bottle around in my hands.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

GB: Again, I’m very early into my career, BUT I would have picked a Natural Science degree rather than Zoology at Exeter if I hadn’t read the Selfish Gene and Extended Phenotype during the summer before year 11. This made me incredibly passionate about evolution, especially of behavioural strategies. I am so thankful I made that decision, so for that alone, Richard Dawkins.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

GB: Well, I’m not exactly old myself… but just read some books about behavioural ecology/evolution and see if you get hooked. If you do and find yourself on a zoology or similar degree, read up on the profiles/publications of all of the lecturers at your university and seek the ones that share your interests / get involved! Do this early, and you may be working with them on your thesis later on and perhaps beyond.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Anindita Brahma

Anindita Brahma (2)

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

AB: I am Anindita Brahma, recently completed Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and currently I am a Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary University of London. My primary research interest is understanding the proximate and ultimate causes of the evolution of social behaviour.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

AB: I developed a general liking for animal behaviour during my college days as a bachelor’s student. During my master’s studies at the University of Calcutta, my mentor gifted me a book named ‘Survival Strategies’ by Raghavendra Gadagkar. This book changed my perspective about studying animal behaviour, especially social behaviour, and it deterred me from almost plunging into immunology. I became curious about the author and his works, and a few months down the line I ended up joining his lab as a Ph.D. student. 

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

AB: Well, although recently I have started working on ants, wasps were my first love. They are such a fascinating combination of beauty and danger (because their sting is excruciating!), and I find their social behaviour intriguing, especially that of the non-temperate primitively eusocial ones. Also, my Ph.D. thesis revolved around a primitively eusocial wasp (Ropalidia marginata), and maybe because of this, wasps will always have a soft spot in my heart. However, I am now venturing into the world of ants, and I am looking forward to investigating and learning many exciting and awe-inspiring things about them.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

AB: My entire Ph.D. was quite eventful. However, by far, the best moment has been the time when I was running an experiment to understand the dynamics of gaining direct fitness through natural nest foundation by workers of the Ropalidia marginata. One beautiful day during my daily behavioural observations, I saw that some workers had aggregated outside the nest and involved in aggressive interactions, after which they returned to their nests and behaved “normally”. Soon, a few of the aggregating wasps left their nest and initiated a new nest together. That was a ‘eureka moment’ for me as before this we had no idea that worker wasps interact and plan to leave the nest way before they actually leave it. Moreover, now I can proudly say that such shrewd planning would put any politician to shame!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

AB: During my Ph.D., I taught animal behaviour to undergraduate students, and I used love answering all the interesting queries they had about the ways of life in the animal kingdom. I also love to explain my research to my friends, acquaintances, school and college students, many of whom do not have the faintest idea about animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. I find it essential to use simple language without any technical jargon and provide analogies and relatable examples from day-to-day life to make research ideas more accessible.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

AB: I think the current important questions in social insect research are related to understanding the evolution of eusociality. The transition from solitary ancestors to a social form and the successful maintenance of this derived social form still has many mysteries that are yet to be unfolded. For this, we need to have a holistic approach, and I think that it can be achieved by combining carefully-designed behavioural experiments with molecular tools and computational techniques.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

AB: I think one of the biggest debates in social insect research is still the one started by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E.O. Wilson with their paper on the evolution of eusociality (Nowak, M.A, Tarnita, C.E and Wilson E.O. 2010. The evolution of eusociality. Nature. 466 pp 1057-106). The authors of this particular paper claimed that the haplodiploidy hypothesis (which has been the basis for sociobiology research for decades) has failed and that the focus has been given to the relatedness (r) part of the r>b/c inequality compared to the benefit and cost parts. They go on to claim that the kin selection theory is not a general one, doesn’t provide much biological insight, and that standard and much simpler natural selection models are adequate to explain altruistic behaviour. Following the publication of this article, there have been vigorous debates among the social insect researchers on the question of the importance and necessity of W.D. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness. As a matter of fact, there has been a series of interesting commentaries (links to these commentaries are provided at the end of this post) on this issue portraying that Nowak et al.has indeed provoked social insect researchers everywhere.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

AB: I recently finished reading ‘Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome’ by the Nobel Laureate, Venki Ramakrishnan. This book is a memoir of his research life and his contribution to unravelling the structure of the ribosome, and he describes what does it mean to “do scientific research”. I found this book fascinating as it takes you through the journey of a researcher’s life, which is no less than a roller-coaster ride. The book describes the frustrations and struggles in the life of a researcher as well as the little joys and the rare ‘eureka moments’ that motivate a researcher to strive on and dig deeper to try and understand a phenomenon. Moreover, his informal and witty writing style is something that makes this book relatable. I would strongly recommend that everyone read this book and take a moment to ponder the nature of science and scientific research.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

AB: I love to read all kinds of fiction and non-fiction books, and my idea of a perfect lazy day is a book and a hot cup to tea. Another passion of mine is music. I have been trained in Hindustani classical music since childhood, and I love listening to a wide variety of music and sing whenever I find the time. 

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

AB: When things get tough (which is quite a common scenario in research life), I think about the little moments of joy and laughter, a few incidents that motivates me not to give up, and try to calm down and focus. Also, if these do not work out, then I have always found that speaking my heart out to a friend and/or a mentor helps me to a great extent! 

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

AB: 1) Drinking water, 2) a tent, and 3) books (lots and lots!). Drinking water because I would not survive without that, tent for shelter, and books because there cannot be a better way to spend time when one gets to stay away from civilisation.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

AB: This person is undoubtedly my Ph.D. supervisor, Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar. He has been an inspiration throughout, and I could not have asked for a better mentor. Not only did I learn the basics and ethics of scientific research from him but also that research is not about costly equipment, but the logic behind framing a question and the elegant and detailed design of an experiment.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

AB: Social insects are elegant and unusual. Some of them may not look “cute” in the first instance but believe me, once you start knowing them, they will reveal a whole new world of intelligence in front of you and will amaze you every step of the way. Working with social insects requires much patience, but at the end of the day when you observe them or even maintain them and care for them, it gives you an immense sense of satisfaction.

Links to the Commentaries

Sociobiology in turmoil again

Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality

Kin selection and eusociality

Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality

Inclusive fitness in evolution

In defense of inclusive fitness theory

Nowak et al. reply

Interview with a social insect scientist: Mariane Ronque

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Mariane Ronque and I recently finished my PhD. in Ecology at the University of Campinas (Brazil). Using a multidisciplinary approach, I investigated the natural history, behaviour, and associated bacterial community of five species of fungus-farming ants from the Atlantic rainforest, with a special interest in non-leafcutters: Mycocepurus smithii, Mycetarotes parallelus, Mycetophylax morschi, Sericomyrmex parvulus and Sericomyrmex saussurei.

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(left) Nest of Mycetophylax morschi in Atlantic rainforest; (right) Fungus garden of Sericomyrmex parallelus.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

I always had an interest in behavioural ecology and species interactions, beginning in my undergraduate studies. Ants became my interest because I wanted to study behavioural ecology and species interaction in a masters course, so I started to read a lot about these themes during my undergrad. When I was reading research about ant social organisation, how they participate in interactions with other arthropods and plants and acting on the dispersion of seeds, I became fascinated and recognised that they would be good models to study behavioural ecology and species interactions.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

Ants, probably this answer is biased because I study ants! But I think ants are a good model to study social behaviour and ecological interactions. In addition, the variety of behaviours, ways of life and abundance in terrestrial environments fascinate me.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

In my PhD when I observed in the field the behavior of cleptobiosis in fungus-farming ants (see the video below). It was very cool to watch Mycetarotes parallelus steal faeces pellets (probably to cultivate the symbiont fungus) from Mycetophylax morschi. I got very excited when I realized that probably this was the first record of cleptobiosis in fungus-farming ants. I reported this behavior in a recent paper at Insectes SociauxThievery in rainforest fungus-growing ants: interspecific assault on culturing material at nest entrance, (Ronque M.U.V., Migliorini G.H., Oliveira P.S., 2018).

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s important for future research?

A question that I am currently interested in is how the associated microorganisms (microbiota) shapes the social behavior in ants. There has been an increase in the interest in the microbiome associated with animals since microorganisms are very abundant and some can affect animal ecology, evolution, and behavior. There is research showing that microorganisms can shape some social behaviors in meerkats, chimpanzees, hyenas. I would like to see this area of research expanding in ants since they are social animals that live in colonies and microorganisms could have key functions in the ant’s societies.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

I like to cook, travel, be with my family and my partner.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

I try to stop a while and give myself a time to relax. Talking to my partner and parents also help me to see the situation more clearly and think strategically to solve the problem.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

This is a difficult question! Based on what I see in survival TV shows, I think it would take a fishing net, a knife, and a pot to boil water. Cannot it be 4 things? Because I would also need someone to share the experience, so I would bring my partner that is an ecologist with expertise in the field and would help me to survive on this island.

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Me and my partner collecting nests of fungus-farming ants (Brazilian Cerrado).

IS: Who do you think has had the greatest influence on your science career?

My graduate advisor Dr. Paulo S. Oliveira. It was in his laboratory and under his supervision that I started studying ants during my master course. He showed me the importance of natural history studies to understand the ecological role of the organism in the environment in which it lives, as well as being the first step in formulating more detailed questions about a species and the interactions in which it participates. I also cannot fail to mention my parents, who always encouraged me to continue in my science career.

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Me and my advisor Dr. Paulo S. Oliveira during poster presentation at IUSSI 2018 – Guarujá.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

Be passionate about your research and scientific career. Be kind to yourself, sometimes things do not go as expected and we should not charge ourselves so much. Try to know the maximum of the organism or the system you study (as field and lab observations), this will allow more in-depth questions. Also, I think it is very important to learn new technologies (especially molecular tools), experimental design and statistic.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Nathan Lecocq de Pletincx

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

NLP: My name is Nathan Lecocq de Pletincx. I am a Ph.D. student in the Evolutionary Biology and Ecology unit of the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles). I am working in the group of Serge Aron on the evolution of reproductive strategies in ants. More specifically, my research focuses on population and colony genetic structure in connection with the hymenopteran sex determination system.

 

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Two Ocymyrmex robustior workers interacting outside the nest.

 

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

NLP: I have always been interested in the origin and evolution of sociality. Watching documentaries on a great diversity of social animals, I discovered how fascinating their behaviour is. Later, I developed a keen interest in reproductive strategies after learning the existence of original primary modes of reproduction (queen thelytoky, hybridogenesis, etc.) in several ant species. As Hymenoptera combines sociality and a great diversity of reproductive strategies, I decided to work on this biological model for my Ph.D.

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Ovaries of a non-mated ergatoid queen, showing active ovaries with ovules, yellow bodies, and an empty but swollen spermatheca.

 

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

NLP: Ants are fascinating models to study the causes and consequences of sociality and reproductive strategies. In fact, social structure, dispersal strategy, mode of reproduction, ecology, and mode of sex determination are so many characteristics that can interact directly or indirectly and vary significantly between species. Further, studying the causes and consequences of all these features is facilitated by the ease to rear and manipulate ants in the lab.

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A worker of Ocymyrmex robustiorat the entrance of the nest.

 

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

NLP: I think the evolution of cooperation and of its most complex form, eusociality, has yet to be better understood. Numerous ‘mathematical’ models detailing the mechanisms at the origin of cooperation and eusociality have been proposed. In my opinion, it would be interesting to test these hypotheses ‘on the biological side’. Finding species matching our needs is essential to future research. On the other hand, the consequences and correlates of cooperation and eusociality have been better studied. However, there is still a lot to do, especially in the field of molecular genetics. Pursuing the development of molecular techniques and tools to analyse big data sets is crucial for future research.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

NLP: I practice athletics a lot and bike regularly. I also like to read and learn new things about training methodology in sport. Spending time with my family is also of great importance to me.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

NLP: For me, the best way to pass through difficult periods is by doing sport. There is no better way to relax than to train hard and go home with the feeling of having had a good session.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

NLP: I think teachers are of great importance because the way they teach influences and helps shaping our vision of the different topics we study. The animal behaviour, genetics, and molecular and cell biology courses I have taken have had a great impact on my way of thinking.

Rhopalomastix ants feed on diaspidid scale insects inside living trees

A blog post highlighting the article  by Yong, Matile-Ferrero and Peeters in Insectes Sociaux.

By Christian Peeters

Many ant genera obtain honeydew from a variety of scale insects feeding on the sap of tropical trees. However, the most advanced and speciose scale insects – family Diaspididae – do not excrete honeydew, but build a protective shield made of wax and proteins and are known to associate with only one ant genus in Africa and Madagascar. The minute workers of Melissotarsus chew an extensive network of tunnels under living bark, and these are inhabited by vast numbers of diaspidids. Typically, these do not secrete the trademark shield when defended by ants, unlike free-living forms. Melissotarsus workers have extremely modified legs and cannot walk outside host trees, it is therefore assumed that they obtain all their food from the scale insects.

The Asian genus Rhopalomastix is strikingly similar in morphology to Melissotarsus, especially the bullet-shaped head of workers with the antennal sockets touching each other (in all other Myrmicinae, the antennal sockets are widely separated), and silk glands inside the head of adult females. However, the legs are normal, and a sting is retained. Molecular data confirm these are sister genera, sitting together on a separate branch. Rhopalomastix is widely distributed (India to eastern Australia), yet its biology was undocumented until Gordon Yong located it in Singapore. Four species nested in seven genera of living trees, together with five genera (one new) of diaspidids. Large numbers of naked diaspidids occurred in all ant nests, with only few shields.

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Heads of Melissotarsus and Rhopalomastix workers, showing how the antennal sockets meet in the center of the face (SEMs by Roberto Keller). Note that the Melissotarsus mandibles are strikingly abraded, indicating an old individual. The ventral expansion of the head accommodates large opener mandible muscles, a novel adaptation for chewing through healthy wood (Khalife et al. 2018). Image: Roberto A. Keller/AMNH

This mutualism is distinct from others involving ants and scale insects because of striking differences in the biology of diaspidids: (i) they feed on parenchyma cells, not the sap; (ii) adults are strictly sessile. First instars (‘crawlers’) disperse but once they have selected a feeding spot and insert their stylets, the legs and antennae degenerate. Thus, ants cannot regulate the distribution of diaspidids within their tunnels, instead the crawlers decide! Ant eggs are distributed throughout the tunnels and larvae feed autonomously, a character also found in attine ants where larvae feed on the cultivated fungus. We lack direct observations of feeding behaviour because the ants switch to other tasks once we exposed the tunnels. Do they eat the flesh of diaspidids? Or their milk (secretions of wax and proteins normally used to build the shield)? Probably both. Diaspidid exuviae are not found in the tunnels, suggesting that they are also eaten by the ants.

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Naked diaspidids (Andaspis numerata) and a few shields (green arrows) inside Rhopalomastix tunnels.

Trees hosting ants and scale insects generally benefit because the cost incurred from the ingestion of sap is compensated by the protection given by ants against leaf herbivores. This is not so in the mutualisms involving diaspidids with Melissotarsus and Rhopalomastix, because these ants are unsuited to be guards. Indeed, after removing bark and exposing tunnels, we observed that both workers and brood were preyed upon by Pheidole and Crematogaster ants. Field studies need to determine what is the impact on host trees, especially in fruit plantations (mangoes, durians, …) that are often preferred. Because only older trees are infested, we assume that these are more tolerant of the diaspidid exactions. Of special note is the host tree Aquilaria that is harvested commercially to produce an extremely valuable resin used for perfumes.

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Numerous naked diaspidids in galleries of Rhopalomastix from Thailand. Ant larvae are scattered along the tunnels.

Rhopalomastix is likely to be widespread throughout tropical Asia but it is necessary to scrape tree bark with a knife in order to locate nests. Previous collection events were restricted to pyrethroid spraying of tree trunks, and soil pit traps (hence they are often classified as ‘litter ants’). We have recently found their arboreal nests in Thailand, Borneo and the southerly Japanese island of Okinawa.

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Gordon Yong investigating a nest of Rhopalomastix on mango tree (Pulau Tekukor island, off Singapore).

References

Khalife A, Keller R, Billen J, Hita Garcia F, Economo E & Peeters C (2018) Skeletomuscular adaptations of head and legs of Melissotarsus ants for tunnelling through living wood. Frontiers in Zoology 15: 30.