Interview with a social insect scientist: Franne Kamhi

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

FK: I am a post doc in Ajay Narendra’s lab at Macquarie University. I am interested in the neural mechanisms underlying ecologically relevant behaviour in an evolutionary context, focusing on ants. I am currently studying the neurobiological basis of visual navigation in Australian bull ants (Myrmecia) active in different temporal niches.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

FK: My background is in neuroscience and I worked in several neuroscience labs during college. While studying electrosensory systems in fish in my final year of college and adult neurogenesis in mice after I graduated I realized that I wanted to focus on the neural underpinnings of ecologically relevant behaviors. And I wanted to do field work in addition to working in a lab. For graduate school, I looked into several neuroethology labs and became fascinated by the questions about the neurobiology of ant social behaviour and colony organization that James Traniello and his lab group focused on.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?


Oecophylla smaragdina Photo credit: F. Kamhi

FK: I have to say the Australasian weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina), also known as the green tree ant, the species I studied during my PhD. They are incredibly charismatic – they wave their antennae at me when I approach the nest and put up quite a fight when I collect them. They’re renowned for being one of the most socially complex species of ant and I could spout off all the reasons why, but one of the most impressive things I saw (and what solidified them as my favourite) was a nest that they built around the light fixture above the table on my porch. When the light was on, it inevitably attracted a lot of insects and the weaver ants would attack them and drag their prey into their perfectly positioned home.

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

FK: One exciting moment was when I finally got the weaver ants to eat a drug that I was trying to feed them to decrease octopamine, a neurotransmitter. I had spent a long time trying to get the concentration of honey water to drug just right so that it did not taste foul to the ants. Once I figured that out, it took only a couple weeks to test them and find that, as I hypothesized, it actually did reduce their level of aggression.

IS: If teaching is part of your work, what courses do you teach? Has your work on social insects helped to shape your teaching?

FK: I am not currently teaching, but hope to have the opportunity to do more in the future.

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

FK: I just moved to Sydney and have been on an Australian literature kick to familiarize myself with my new country of residence. The last book I read was Kate Grenville’s “Sarah Thornhill,” the sequel to “The Secret River” (which I read previously). Both are very well written, moving novels about a British convict and his family settling in what is now Sydney.

IS: Did any one book have a major influence in shaping your career? What was the book and how did it affect you?

FK: I think several books influenced my research interests, but one that comes to mind is Georg Striedter’s “Principles of Brain Evolution,” which I read in a seminar in college.

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

FK: I enjoy spending time with my friends, whether having dinner parties or seeing live music. I also try to get out of the city as much as possible to go hiking and camping.

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

FK: I take a step back and go for a walk. Ice cream and chocolate are good. Also, I have a great support system of friends and family.

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

FK: I always hate these types of questions. Probably a good book, a blanket (can double as a towel), and sunscreen.

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

FK: I have had a lot of fantastic mentors, I don’t know how to choose just one! Chris Cain was my first research mentor. I decided to study neuroscience while working with him, and he’s the first person who ever suggested that I go to graduate school. Mark Braford was my honor’s supervisor and taught me a great deal about evolutionary neuroscience –working in his lab gave me the idea that I could combine fieldwork with neuroscience. And James Traniello, my PhD adviser, has been a fantastic mentor and is continuing to help me develop into an independent researcher.

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

FK: Find someone whose research interests you, contact them, and try it out!



The nastiest ants dance the tango at home and abroad

A blog post highlighting the article written by Calcaterra, Cabrera and Briano in Insectes Sociaux

Written by Luis Calcaterra

The world’s worst invasive ants originated in the same place as the tango- the River Plate basin in Argentina. Step by step, naturally, helped by humans and/or global warming, these ants then proceeded to move from their native range in all directions over the last 150 years. Finally conquering the world, they have changed human life on Earth irreversibly. But why are invasive ants, as the tango, more notorious abroad than in their homeland?

Of the approximately 14,000 ant species on earth, only a handful are invasive and threatening to the planet. Like tango dancers, these species gained fame abroad, but not for positive reasons. These ants cause billions of dollars in losses by affecting agriculture, human health and wildlife, replacing and reducing native species, and even pushing some species to the edge of extinction.

Main source of global invaders

Like the tango dancers, these versatile ants have evolutionary adaptions to move freely around the world to establish and dominate successfully in new places, with devastating consequences. Most of their invasions originated in the basin of the River Plate, as in the case of the invasive red and black fire ant (Solenopsis invicta and S. richteri), the Argentine ant (Linepithema humile), the little fire ant (Wasmannia auropunctata), and the South American big-headed ant Pheidole obscurithorax, whose source populations have been recently discovered in Argentina.

But are these evil invaders as dominant and problematic in their homeland as they are in the invaded regions? Little is known about the performance of invasive ants in their native land or how they interact with other native ants. Previously, we thought that invaders were not dominant in their homeland, but studies conducted during the last decade revealed that some of them can be just as ecologically dominant in their home as in their introduced range. Such is the case of the aggressive red fire ant (Calcaterra et al. 2008), now spread in North America, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and some Pacific and Caribbean islands (Ascunce et al. 2011).

Local coexistence of several highly invasive ants

In our study, we investigated how different invasive ants fare against other native ant species as part of an effort to learn more about the behavior of invaders in their homeland. We studied interactions between several of the most highly invasive ants and other native aboveground foraging ants that locally co-occur in four habitats of a protected area (Otamendi Natural Reserve) next to the city of Buenos Aires. We used a combination of pitfall traps and baits to study day-to-day activity in ant communities to determine ant abundance at the sites, and this showed the ability each species had to discover and dominate food resources.

Of the 49 ant species that locally coexisted in the reserve, five were well-known global invaders: the black fire ant S. richteri, the Argentine ant L. humile, the little fire ant W. auropunctata, the tawny crazy ant Nylanderia fulva, and the rover ant Brachymyrmex gaucho. But only two of them, the black fire ant and the Argentine ant were ecologically dominant, though their supremacy was much lower than in the invaded regions, likely due to the presence of much more skilled competitor ants in their homeland. It´s as if local acceptably good dancers were treated as demigods abroad, something that in fact often happens in the tango world.

Factors promoting ant coexistence

Coexistence among so many invasive ants and other co-dominant native, but non-invasive, ants was apparently helped by niche and competitive differences, different habitat preferences, different abilities to scout and discover the baits, and in the ability to immediately recruit enough workers to monopolize them. But the high ant species diversity and the fact that invasive ants are mostly randomly distributed in space (not segregated) suggest that competition only played a secondary role in organizing the ant communities.

The other invasive ants were not dominant in the reserve- much like the tango dancers that appear mediocre in their very competitive local environment. Thus, it is possible that their dominance in native and introduced regions of the world is more associated with their high colonization capacity to harsh environments (mostly anthropic) rather than to their superior competitive abilities. For example, the little fire ant is able to monopolize bait only when a large number of workers are recruited to it, which can rarely be achieved owing to its slow performance in scouting and recruiting workers to defend it from better contenders (unless the bait is within its nesting territory). The little fire ant is mostly problematic in places where there are very few competitor ants, such as islands (e.g. Hawaii) or anthropic sites (e.g. cities, where the weather is also more extreme).

Pheidole workers removing little fire ant workers from a bait. 
Video credit: Lucila Chifflet


As for the ant tango, a question remains without answer: what factors enable the appearance in the River Plate basin of so many successful invaders? To our knowledge, this region represents the main exit door of known and potential invasive ants. As global trading expands, the spread of the nastiest ants from this region of the planet will continue threatening life on Earth.



Calcaterra, L. A., Livore, J. P., Delgado, A., & Briano, J. A. (2008). Ecological dominance of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, in its native range. Oecologia, 156(2), 411-421.

Ascunce, M. S., Yang, C. C., Oakey, J., Calcaterra, L., Wu, W. J., Shih, C. J., Goudet, J., Ross, K.G. & Shoemaker, D. (2011). Global invasion history of the fire ant Solenopsis invicta. Science, 331(6020), 1066-1068.