I'm really grateful for the funding and fantastic support of the National Geographic Society (NGS) for my wasp fieldwork in Panama. This week, Nat Geo posted some coverage of the project online - link here: http://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2018/03/meet-slow-mo-ninja-discovering-why-wasps-work-others.
For some footage of our beautiful wasps - from our Panama populations, many taken by Pieter Botha - see: https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/news/180307-wasps-origin-animal-altruism-tiny-backpacks-vin-spd
This week we published a paper in Nature on the evolution of altruism in changeable, unpredictable habitats. Recently, biologists have pointed to a number of striking connections between animal cooperation and environmental stochasticity - particularly in cooperatively-breeding birds. We decided to go back to basics and see what happens to Hamilton's rule in these stochastic environments. I've written a blog post on the background to the study over at the Nature Ecology & Evolution Community site.
When is an termite mound like a leopard? Are they both - in some sense - 'organisms'? If that question makes you (a) annoyed or (b) intrigued, this is the event for you. Dr Heikki Helanterä and I are chairing a symposium on whether social insect biologists should embrace or reject the embattled concept of the 'superorganism'. It'll be at the social insect biology congress (iussi2018.com) in Guarujá, Sao Paulo State, this August. If you're a social insect biologist with strong thoughts either way, get your abstracts submitted! Talk slots are 15 mins.
Abstracts submission is at http://iussi2018.com/node/1014.
Recently-published coverage on the FAPESP website of our fieldwork radio-tagging wasps in Sao Paulo state: http://agencia.fapesp.br/vespa_compartilha_alimento_com_a_vizinhanca/27076/
My PhD has been a series of wasp-hunting forays through French Guiana, Panama, and Brazil - and people sometimes seem a bit surprised at all this South American wasping. "Surely," they say, "there are perfectly good wasps in the UK?" Whilst my wasping loyalties are definitely with the wasps of South America - from the night-dwelling Apoica in the rainforest to the spectacular armadillo wasps of the cerrado - it's true that British wasps aren't to be sniffed at. After all, we have hornets, and even devoted wasp-killing maniacs will concede that they are fairly impressive.
So, to correct the balance a little bit, here are some shots of British wasps (hornets, no less...) from a park in London, which we collected this week for a three-year project being undertaken Daisy (a postdoc in the Sumner lab, probing the very origins of sociality in the wasp world...):
Spectacular photo taken by Alice on our recent field trip to Brazil! Technically, it's a boring beetle, which seems a bit harsh.
May I present the giant metallic ceiba borer, Euchroma gigantea, modelled by Sam:
Sitting at Madrid airport on journey back from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where it's been a busy month studying a different paper wasp: the ominously-named Polistes satan.
Why are they called P. satan? I suspect that it's because the first thing you notice in P. satan is that many individuals have a black face with red eyes. Does look fairly satanic. Others have red faces with black splotches. This variation in facial colouration is thought to serve a signalling function, at least in foundresses (paper here). Here, for instance, is a typical black-faced female:
The second thing you notice about them is that they prefer stinging whoever isn't wearing the bee suit.
The third thing you notice is that they are all wearing tiny radio-transmitter backpacks.
Working with Professor Fabio Nascimento's lab at the University of Sao Paulo in Ribeirao Preto, we have once again been using miniature radio-transmitters to study Polistes behaviour. This is all part of the project I have been doing in French Guiana and Panama, and follows on from the 2007 work by my supervisor Seirian Sumner (and later fascinating experiments by Thibault Lengronne).
The four of us - Andre de Souza (post-doc at USP), Sam Morris, Alice Chadwick, and me - have spent the month in two field sites (an abandoned farmhouse and a small fazenda, both in a valley near the small town of Pedregulho in the north of Sao Paulo State). The landscape was very different to Panama: not tropical lowland rainforest for P. satan, but rather the transition zone between cerrado and Atlantic forest ecosystems, which seems to be popular with the toucans and looks something like the Yorkshire Dales with more palm trees:
Next step is to analyse the pile of data from this blitz month of data-collecting. We have movement networks from the radio-tags, aggression data from behavioural experiments, hydrocarbon samples from the cuticles, microsats for genotyping, and facial colouration for matching with behavioural histories. Lots to be getting on with!
Massive thank you to Fabio (for so generously hosting us at USP and supervising the project), Andre (who had to tolerate dragging a bunch of confused gringos around small Brazilian towns), Sam (who gallantly left his giant dinosaur ants behind to spend a sweaty month dodging wasps and piglets), and Alice (who recklessly followed her crazy boyfriend to Brazil to run around grabbing wasps). Obrigado todos!
Just written a blog post over at National Geographic's 'Explorers Journal', on recent field trip to Panama - explaining exactly why I've now been stung over 70 times for this wasping PhD... Link's here:
Blog belonging to Patrick, studying the weird and wonderful mysteries of neotropical wasps in French Guiana and Panama
Adventures of a
ADVENTURES of a TRAINEE ZOOLOGIST