I'm writing this from a field station on the coast of Panama. Darkness is falling over a coral lagoon and the fireflies are beginning to drift through the grass. This has been my second field trip of the PhD, with the support of the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and after three months it's now drawing to an end. Pieter and I have encountered so many amazing things that it's hard to know where to start! Being here, it has been impossible to stop ogling at all the wonders everywhere you look - from capuchin monkeys flinging themselves through the branches to the iridescent flashes of morpho butterflies skitting through the forest. We've even stumbled upon the overgrown relics of Second World War bunkers smothered under strangler figs in the rainforest. Panama is a riot of diversity.
Every time I come back to the tropics, I fall in love with it all over again. As a bit of a wild Darwinian, it's a bit like squatting briefly in the temple of natural selection: here in tropics, there are 'endless forms most beautiful' in the most stupendous, magnificent, awesome sense possible. Can't wait to get back here!
I've been busy getting to know 17,000 baby wasps over the past two months in Panama, which explains my slight silence on the blog front. My species is the striking dark red Polistes canadensis, but we've also run into a number of other species (from the tiny Polybia to the redoubtable and oddly-beautiful Synoeca - one of the few insects to possess the maximum score on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index). Above, in a tree in the Bay of Colon is Apoica pallens, a strange white wasp because it spends the daytime huddled neatly over the brood and does all its foraging during the night.
Of course, no blog post should be without a snap of P. canadensis, so here is my PhD species in all its glory - making full use of the daytime:
These colonies are on the Caribbean side of Panama, near the mouth of the Chagres River. Here's Pieter looking out at the river as the evening draws in:
Ever wondered what a God's-eye-view of civil war looks like? No, neither have I, but I have wondered about something similar - a God's-eye-view of civil war within wasp colonies. In French Guiana last year, I did exhaustive behavioural analyses of the 'queen struggle' (the struggle for power over the colony that takes place amongst the surviving workers once the queen dies), all part of an experiment to test some intriguing hypotheses we have about wasp dominance behaviour.
Undergrad students Sinead Godson and Neil McIvor back in Bristol have been watching reams of video footage of this power struggle played out on two of my nests, and have produced fascinating projects using Elo rankings (the ranking system used in chess) to tackle questions of their own about these colonies. I'm currently working through each of my colonies to test my hypotheses. Using raw data from Sinead's work, I've plotted the dominance interactions between the wasps of one of the colonies from Sinnamary below. The colours refer to particular external information about the wasps - a categorisation system that will allow me to tease apart the behaviours.
So, if you want to know what a God's-eye-view of civil war (in wasps) looks like, it looks a little bit like this:
Watch this space as we go deeper into the social struggles of life on a primitively-eusocial wasp colony!
I'll be off to Panama in May for 4 months, and am on the look-out for a field assistant interested in ecology/evolution. We will be radio-tagging thousands of wasps in field sites likely to be in Colon Province (and potentially Lago Bayano to the east). It'll be hard (but fun) work. Apply if the prospect of long days of enthusiastic wasping in high humidity sounds like it could be your sort of thing....!
Deadline: 7th Feb. 2016
Field dates: 15th May to 10th September 2016
Here's the full advert:
In 2016, my fieldwork will be in Panama, where we know that 'drifting' (the mysterious movement of wasps between colonies, which is the focus of my PhD) takes place at extreme levels. Data from 2005 show that over half of detected wasps were 'drifters', so this is a real chance to get to the bottom of this Darwinian enigma.
It's all looking great. The only potential snag is that next year is likely to be an intensely dry year in Panama, due to the return of El Nino - a large-scale climatic phenomenon in the Pacific in which the colder eastern side of the Pacific warms up, leading to shifts in precipitation and temperature. Here's a handy guide from the Met Office:
So should I be worried? Here's my current thinking.
What's already happening in Panama?
The Panamanian rainy season in 2015 has been both slow to develop and weak. In fact, the current El Nino is looking suspiciously like it will be the strongest since 1997, which itself was the strongest on record . As STRI (the Smithsonian Institution's famous tropical research arm in Panama) have declared, "the total rainfall recorded up to August 18th was... the lowest ever recorded since records began in 1925" .
Should we be concerned?
It seems likely that next year's wet season will be unusually dry. This is a potential problem for a wasp biologist (me!), because wasp populations are likely to respond negatively to drought stress, both in terms of abundance and activity patterns.
It is too early to be sure what the effects will be. I am currently in contact with groups on the ground in Panama, and monitoring the state of the wasp populations over the coming months will be crucial.
Please contact me if you have any information!
If you're reading this from Central and South America and know the state of your local wasps, then I'd love to hear from you. Do let me know if your wasps are as abundant as normal, or whether there have been any noticeable adverse effects. Many thanks!
The great French botanist Francis Hallé (famous for his expeditions to the canopy on an inflatable raft) presents this fascinating and beautiful film. A definite recommendation! Here's the trailer...
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