New study on some mysterious Pheidole

If you look hard enough in the field, you are guaranteed to uncover cool stuff.  Such is the case in Madagascar, where Brian Fisher and colleagues have been surveying the island intensively for 20+ years, uncovering a huge and mostly endemic ant fauna.  Georg Fischer has been working for some years on the collections of Malagasy Pheidole, and, in the process found something very strange.  There is an extremely rare, and unusual group of social parasites with workers that seem to look like their hosts.  Working with Sasha Mikheyev’s lab and other colleagues, we found they belong to a single clade, a mini-radiation of parasites within the broader endemic Malagasy radiation, rather than (as is typical) each parasite being closely related to their host.  Using micro-CT and a comparative analysis (led by Nick Friedman), we found they have evolved size and shape to match their hosts.  Parasites more generally evolve to resemble their hosts because they aim to fool predators (Batesian mimicry) or they aim to fool the hosts themselves (Wasmannian mimicry).  It is hard to invoke Batesian mimicry here, which leaves Wasmannian as the putative mechanism, and this is not known for ants that parasitize other ants (although is known for other insects like beetles to parasitize ants).  If true, it implies ants may sense morphology to some degree to distinguish friend from foe, and these abilities are very sensitive.   There are other potential explanations too, as we discuss in the paper, just out in Current Biology. This is definitely a study that raises as many questions as answers, hopefully it will inspire some follow up experiments.

Birds have beaks that are a compromise of many functions

Birds use their beaks for foraging, but also for regulating their temperature, singing and a variety of other functions. Do beaks and other multifunctional traits have characteristics that are specialized for each function, or are they an evolutionary compromise? To test this, we examined beak shape and size in a family of Australian songbirds, and compared the influence of each function on the evolution of species differences. We found that foraging behaviour and climate both have an effect on the evolution of bird beaks and their characteristics, and that this also affects features of the songs these birds perform.

Read the paper led by Nick here.
Read the article OIST published on this paper: English / Japanese.

Listen to the call of Philemon corniculatus (commonly known as the Noisy Friarbird) below!

SWARM 2019

This year, our lab co-organised and hosted SWARM 2019: The 3rd International Symposium on Swarm Behavior and Bio-Inspired Robotics, bringing together 160 biologists and engineers from around Japan and the world. The theme of this conference, which has been held in Kyoto twice before, is to promote interdisciplinary interaction between biology and engineers within the realms of collective behavior and bioinspired design.

We co-organized (with Christian Peeters) a symposium within the conference, “Engineering Insect Morphology by Natural Selection” to highlight recent research from understanding how insects work to inspire robotics. From our lab, Evropi Toulkeridou presented her research on the automated segmentation of micro-CT images by deep learning. In the same session, Adam Khalife, a former intern (now a PhD student at IEES-Paris), talked about his work on the muscular and skeletal structure of worker ants.

Other talks included Christian Peeters (ant thorax), from Yuko Ulrich (collective behavior) and Adria Labeouf (social circulation), and Hitoshi Aonuma (trap jaw ant mechanics). Evan wrapped up the session by asking how the endless engineering solutions of nature, currently locked up in museum collections, can be utilised to its maximum potential to inspire human innovation.

We hope that the symposium provided a fertile ground for biologists and engineers to exchange ideas and develop collaborations.

Thank you and otsukaresama to all the volunteers and especially to Chisa for her hard work organising the logistics!

Augment your reality with some new ant species- in 3D.

Ever wanted your taxonomic revision with its own custom-made iphone app?

Here in the lab we are always looking for ways to make taxonomic work more exciting and engaging, and we believe that technology can help us connect people with biodiversity in new ways.  We have previously been exploring the use of 3D x-ray imaging for enhancing taxonomic revisions (remember the dragon ants?).  But one nice thing about 3D imaging is these data can travel to many endpoints, everything from an image on your computer monitor to a physical 3D print or to virtual or augmented reality. 

3D ant model in augmented reality

We were wondering how augmented reality might help enhance taxonomic revisions, and scientific papers in general.  Imagine as you flip through a paper 3D figures and images pop out of the page and float on your desk.  How much more exciting would that be as a way to experience new species?

Some time ago, Eli Sarnat and many of our lab members decided to revise the Fijian Strumigenys, just a little project to organize one of the coolest endemic radiations in Fiji and describe some new species.   But to push it further, we thought we would see if we could do it with augmented reality enhancement.  After lots of testing and looking around, we hired an app dev team based in Ukraine to code us up a custom app to display species models, 3D rangemaps, and automatically project 3D figures.  The result, Insects3D, can be downloaded at the app store for iphone.  Check it out, especially while reading the open source paper from Insect Systematics & Diversity.  While primitive and not at all simple or fast enough to achieve for all taxonomic works, we hope it shows an inkling of what’s possible in the future.  Let us know what you think!

3D model of a new species, Strumigenys avatar, floating above the plate in the paper

Read the Paper

Download the app

Congrats, Graduates!

Congrats to Patricia Wepfer and Yafei Mao, the two latest PhD graduates from the lab!  Patricia is back in Switzerland working on a project at ETH Zurich, but came back for OIST graduation, and Yafei is about to leave for a postdoc at the U. of Washington.  Both Patricia and Yafei did great PhDs on coral evolution. Corals aren’t very ant-like, but we like them anyway.

Yafei and Evan
Patricia, Evan, and Satoshi Mitarai, her other advisor
Patricia signs the great ant of success (aka Strumigenys nidifex)

We had a signing “ceremony” with Patricia, Yafei, and Cong Liu, the first lab graduate from last year and is about to leave to be the E.O. Wilson postdoc at Harvard. 

Congrats everyone and Gambatte at your new jobs!