Interview with a social insect scientist: Alessandro Cini

You can read Alessandro’s recent research article on behavioral and neurogenomic responses of host workers to social parasite invasion in a social insect here.

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IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

AC: I am a Research Fellow at the University College London in the research group led by Seirian Sumner, which is part of the stimulating environment of CBER (Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research). I am an ethologist, and I am particularly interested in understanding the diversity and evolution of two cornerstones of insect societies: communication and social behaviour.

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

AC: I guess two ingredients were (and still are) crucial: stimulating readings and inspiring colleagues! The former inspired my curiosity, and the latter showed me how to satisfy it. Most of these colleagues are now close friends and continue having a great influence on my scientific adventure.

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

AC: Probably when I first listened in real-time to the amplification of substrate-borne vibrations on a paper-wasp nest. In addition to chemical and visual stimuli, wasps also communicate through the vibrations they produce on the nest thanks to specific oscillatory behaviours. It is possible to amplify these vibrations and make them audible. One can thus perceive what is usually forbidden to our senses, and basically ‘feel’ the vibrational landscape of a colony. This somehow allows us to get close to the umwelt (meaning here the world as perceived by a living organism) of animals that are separated from us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Even more exciting was to be able to play back the vibrations of a specific behaviour made by adult wasps and see that the larvae responded to the signal; being able to (sort of) talk with another non-human animal is the dream of every ethologist, I believe! A sort of Ring of Solomon in the Konrad Lorenz perspective!

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

AC: I have been teaching an international course on social insects for several years, and I frequently participate in science communication events. I like using my research to convey the idea that the world around us, as well as the scientific process that allows us to better understand it, are much more complex than usually reported in textbooks and science communication media. In the era of social networks, ideas and knowledge are often conveyed through simple marketing-style messages. I believe we need to take our time to learn and explain the complexity and intricacy of the natural world. After all, such complexity is its charm.

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

AC: I am surely biased by my own interests! I would say that one of the most important questions is to understand the extent of phenotypic plasticity for many crucial traits of insect societies, from life-history traits to behavioural aspects. The more we study, the more we understand that many traits are hugely plastic: understanding the causes and consequences of such plasticity is interesting per se, but also important in the era of rapid changes we are living in, the Anthropocene. On the other side, we are also experiencing a very technological era, and we should take advantage of this when studying social insects. In this regard, I think that automated recognition of behavioural patterns will be essential in the near future for obtaining massive amounts of one of the most difficult and time-consuming phenotypes to observe in social insects: behaviour! I hope in a few years we will be talking regularly about another ‘omics’: ethomics!

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

AC: In my own domain (communication and social behaviour of social wasps), a very debated topic during the last 15 years or so has been the use of facial marks as communication signals in paper wasps! Many Polistes wasp species have colour marks on their head, which influence the social behaviour of conspecifics. The role, significance, and evolution of these facial marks have been strongly debated, and I believe we are still far from having a complete picture (despite the abundance of very good research!). It is one of those cases where what appears as a very simple textbook example indeed reveals fascinating and intricate complexity at a closer look!

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

AC: I enjoyed reading The Vulgar Wasp: The Story of a Ruthless Invader and Ingenious Predator by Phil Lester very much. A captivating account on the common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, which provides an insightful perspective on one of the most incredible biological invasions of recent times.

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

AC: In the first place, the essential substrate was surely provided by my family, who, since childhood, stimulated my curiosity and, later on, supported my passion for science. Among the numerous catalysts that acted on this substrate, I would probably name Stephen Jay Gould, whose essays deeply influenced me. Thanks to a smart high-school science teacher, I discovered his work very early. I especially loved his writing style and its ability to begin a story by looking at the smallest details to reach the big picture, and drag you back to the details again (that you now see under a completely different perspective)!

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

AC: Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but I would suggest focusing, as the main goal of one’s efforts, on what is interesting to understand and discover, instead of yielding to what pays off more in term of publications and career! I am still hoping for an increased slow-science attitude and for less publish or perish imperatives!

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

AC: Science has taken me to wonderful places, such as the humid tropical forests of Malaysia, where the tiny and elegant hover-wasps nest in huge aggregations of thousands of colonies, as well as the colourful blooming fields of uninhabited Mediterranean islands. I admit, however, that a particularly meaningful place for me is represented by the highlands of the Sibillini Mountains in Central Italy, which I discovered thanks to the Social Insect Research Group in Florence, especially thanks to my former Ph.D. supervisor Rita Cervo. This wonderful landscape, unfortunately hit several times by dramatic earthquakes, is incredibly rich in endemic fauna and flora. For several years, every spring, we have climbed the slopes of these mountains to study an obligate social parasite (Polistes sulcifer) that overwinters at high altitude under the rocks! On the first sunny days of spring, it is fascinating to see these wasps leaving their winter refuges and flying down to the lowlands, where a few weeks later, they will usurp host colonies, thanks to both violent fights and sophisticated deception strategies.

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IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

AC: Maybe influenced by the current restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my mind immediately thinks about travelling! With unlimited funds, I would start wandering across the distribution ranges of several social insect species (especially the most “primitive” ones) to describe and compare the geographic variation in communication strategies and social behaviour. This would not be just an amusing job; it would be a necessary step to observe the diversity of behavioural traits and start digging into the evolution of phenotypic diversity.

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