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...
In one of the more poetic moments of the Chronicles of Narnia, a guinea pig slips through the fabric of our world and finds itself in a transcendental woodland dotted endlessly with ponds. All is still. It later turns out that each pond is home to a separate universe. Our fluffy hero is a sort of unwitting higher-dimensional cosmonaut.
The vision of "the wood between the worlds" has stuck with me ever since I first read it as a child. But I now think that, in a genuine sense, we live in the wood. Surrounding us on all sides in our fractal world are swirling depths of life evolving, each complicated enough to be a world in itself. Millions of tiny fungi are hurling microcosmic lassos around passing nematode worms, driven by proteinaceous conversations between unseen genes; trillions of bacteria float in ethereal silence through private watery voids; miniature spiders are adventuring through the atmosphere suspended beneath diaphanous balloons of silk; ascomycetes in plumes of Saharan dust are wafting through Atlantic skies; and Demodex mites are crawling over the creases and follicles beneath your eyelashes like crampon-wielding explorers struggling over crevasses. Meanwhile, photons are careering into your retinas, splashing through oceans of rhodopsin eight minutes after erupting from nuclear explosions on the surface of the sun; behind your eyes, explosions of sodium ions are ushering action potentials down a filigree lacework of nerves; leaf-mining insects are scrawling their wavy signatures through two-dimensional flatlands; strepsipteran females, shrunken by relentless selection to lumps of ovary-bearing fat, jut from the stergites of paper-wasps; and we ourselves are navigating the world as nearly-chimaeric beings part-composed of bacterial cells vastly outnumbering our own. Our own universe is the "wood between the worlds" - and we can peer into each world-pond and find "caverns measureless to man".
We really should refuse to be sedated by the "anaesthetic of familiarity". However mad it sounds, life is dancing around us in a richness that defies belief. It makes you want to laugh.
In that supposed last word on the horrors of the humid tropics, Heart of Darkness, the forest wilderness of the Belgian Congo is not just a dank wasteland, oozing with unscrupulous ivory-traders and hungry cannibals. It is a remnant of Eden as it really was, a claustrophobic, uncivil emptiness - a phantom landscape inhabited by nauseous emblems of our own depravity, igniting mysterious lusts in western souls.
For Conrad, our most primaeval urges stir in the most primaeval landscapes. By implication, civilisation (as the antithesis to the forest) does not so much cultivate novel virtues as straitjacket our underlying tendency to barbarism. Tropical forests lie beyond a moral frontier, and thus deserve our contempt.
Heart of Darkness is a racist book (just see Chinua Achebe's 1975 polemic if you're unconvinced). Where does that racism come from? It comes, largely, from an obsession with contrasting the apparent turpitude - and dark inscrutability - of the Congo with the West, even if the thrust of the comparison is to underscore the delicate truth that the foundations of civilised society are not so far from the state of nature as we might wish to think. As Achebe put it, Conrad imagines his purgatorial rainforest resurrecting 'grotesque echoes of... forgotten darkness,... the avenging recrudescence of the mindless frenzy of the first beginnings' (p.1785).
Today, tropical forests tend to attract embarrassing gung-ho hyberbole about 'killer snakes' and 'giant spiders', and no end of TV blokes in camouflage being airlifted into the middle of nowhere smeared in mud to declare how dangerous everything is. Again, these forests offer the ultimate antidote to the familiar - they are alien, amoral, exotic worlds.
I think that there's a third way, which celebrates their extraordinary 'other-ness' without resorting to either Conrad-esque phantasmagoria or tabloid hysterics. It sees tropical rainforests as ambiguous, beautiful, enigmatic, infinite but knowable, and, ultimately, vulnerable. I genuinely feel that when we start seeing rainforests as neither hellish nor heavenly, but rather as vibrant, dynamic totems to the evolutionary processes that also created us, we will stand a much better hope of halting their destruction and the ongoing decimation of their indigenous inhabitants, who are neither 'savage' nor 'untainted' but simply alternative and legitimate ways of living on Earth.
In French Guiana, my main experiment involves plucking the queen from unsuspecting wasp colonies to (literally) see what happens. It takes about a day before those left behind realise that some kind of royal alien abduction has taken place. You can almost smell the tension. Nobody stops to pay their respects. The colony is plunged into a tiny power vacuum, a moment of private societal crisis in which only one wasp can wrestle control. That's the brutal charm of primitively-eusocial wasps - in principle, anyone could be egg-layer. It's a cut-throat meritocracy, in which the most thuggish pretenders to the throne end up in power.
Thibault and I recorded this scramble for control as it played out on a number of colonies over three hot weeks this summer. And I'm still recording it now, as most of the colonies were filmed in order to be analysed back in Bristol. I can then visualise this violent data in the form of networks (the network above, for instance, is a snapshot of eight hours of aggression over four days on a particular colony, in which each node is a wasp and each 'edge' an act of dominance). From this I'll be able to piece together the social status of the particular wasps I'm interested in using social network analysis, which will be the really intriguing bit. It's a bit like being God looking down to watch the back-stabbing Borgias take over Rome. Here goes into pandemonium!
And so Wasping Trip One comes to an end, with a swift sprint down a leafy runway on the outskirts of Cayenne. (I'll be back next year.) How did it go? Well, I returned with 2,000 wasps (deceased), a stick of cocoa, a few pinned cicadas, a large bill for car batteries, and a lot of radio-tag data which will - fingers crossed - reveal myriad wonders about how primitive animal societies evolve. Next step is processing hours of footage of my wasps vying for power after the abduction of their erstwhile queens...
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