What do butterflies tell us about tropical diversity?
Take it from an expert.
Tropical ecologist Philip DeVries of the Department of Biological Sciences, University of New Orleans, will discuss the topic at his lecture on Thursday, Feb. 9 at the University of California, Davis.
His presentation, sponsored by the College of Biological Sciences' Storer Life Sciences Endowment, is at 4:10 p.m. in 2 Wellman Hall. Professor Phil Ward of the UC Davis Department of Entomology is his host.
Free and open to all interested persons, the lecture is sparking a lot of interest, and rightfully so.
DeVries focuses his research on insect ecology and evolution, especially butterflies. A native of Detroit, Mich., he received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas, Austin, in 1987.
Highly honored, DeVries has received fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim and Dodge foundations, and the Smithsonian Institute. He is not only a noted researcher and ecologist, but a writer, scientific adviser and photographer.
If you listen to his piece on YouTube (uploaded in 2008), you can see, hear and feel the excitement in his voice as the long-tongued hawk moth, Morgan's Sphinx (Xanthopan morgani) pollinates Darwin's orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) one night in a Madagascar rain forest. Truly amazing!
Background of the moth and orchid: Naturalist Charles Darwin examined the orchid in 1862 and famously predicted in his book Fertilisation of Orchids that there must be in existence a moth with a long-enough tongue (proboscis) to be able to pollinate it. The orchid's "nectar spur" measures about 12 to 14 inches long. The moth itself was discovered in Madagascar in 1903--correctly proving Darwin's prediction of its existence-- but no one saw it pollinate the orchid until DeVries headed out to the rain forest with his camera equipment. Since pollination occurs only at night, DeVries used infrared light (invisible to the moth) to capture the scene.
Jerry A. Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, blogged about the spectacular video in "Why Evolution Is True."
"The video," Coyne wrote, "was made in Madagascar by a friend of mine, Phil DeVries from the University of New Orleans, a remarkable—and, as you’ll see, intrepid—naturalist, and author of the two-volume Butterflies of Costa Rica and their Natural History."
"It’s really lovely to see how excited Phil gets when he finally sees the pollination," wrote Coyne. "Those are the juicy moments that every naturalist lives for."
Yes, indeed! It's something you never expect to see--and hope to see again.
Of course you do.
But probably not as much as Andrea Lucky, the "Queen of Ants."
(Or as much as Phil Ward, her major professor at UC Davis or Alex Wild, the Illinois-based biologist and insect photographer who also studied with Ward. Both Lucky and received their doctorates in entomology from UC Davis.)
It's a citizen-scientist driven study of the ants that live in urban areas, particularly around homes and schools, Lucky says.
Anyone can participate: teachers, students, parents, junior scientists and just plain (and fancy) ant enthusiasts.
The project involves collecting ants in backyards and schoolyards "using a standardized protocol so that we can make detailed maps of the wild life that lives just outside (or even in) our doorsteps," Lucky says. The data-rich maps "will tell us a lot about native and introduced ants in cities, not just here in North Carolina, but across the United States and, as this project grows, the world!"
Many folks, Lucky says, have asked her about contributing to the project, so there's now a SciFund Challenge and donations are being accepted. "Our fundraising campaign has just six days left," she says, "but of course the project goes on past that deadline."
And the spectacular ant photos on School of Ants website were generously provided by...drum roll...Alex Wild.
Between the photos and the text, there's a wealth of information about ants on the site.
All in all, it's good to see citizen scientists monitoring ants. Ants don't share the same PR image as ladybugs, butterflies and native bees, also tracked by citizen scientists.
One, two, three, all together now, can you say "Myrmecologists"?
(A) Ants, (B) Bonnie Blaimer and (C) Crematogaster.
Add a double "M" and you have a myrmecologist studying ants in Madagascar.
Bonnie Blaimer, a graduate student in entomology at the University of California, Davis, just received a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant for $13,794 to help support her doctoral dissertation research on the systematic and evolution of Malagasy ants of the genus Crematogaster in Madagascar.
Blaimer, who studies with major professor Phil Ward, a noted ant specialist, describes Crematogaster ants as "a species-rich, world-wide occurring group of ants with a notoriously difficult species-level taxonomy."
Why these ants? Blaimer said she first became interested in them when she was doing field work in Madagascar as an intern for the Cal Academy of Sciences.
“This genus fascinates me particularly because of its species diversity and dominance in tropical forests, and its intriguing natural history,” she said. “Most species are canopy-nesting in dead twigs and branches or under bark, or they make elaborate independent carton-nest from wood fibers. Some species are suspected to be temporary social parasites, and many tend scale insects or mealybugs. In short, many different aspects remain still open for investigation beyond my dissertation work!”
Blaimer, who holds a master’s degree in Forest Sciences from Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg, Germany, says she will mostly use the NSF funds to perform DNA sequencing of the Malagasy species and also a variety of species from other biogeographical regions.
"This enables me to investigate and revise species boundaries within Crematogaster in Madagascar, and to establish a framework phylogeny for the genus upon which I can explore the evolution of the genus in the Malagasy region. A smaller portion of the grant will further allow me to travel to Madagascar to do some outreach and education work.”
Blaimer is the co-principal investigator of the grant, titled "Aligning Ant Diversity with Conservation Priorities in a Biodiversity Hotspot: Systematics and Biogeography of the Arboreal Ant Crematogaster in Madagascar." Her major professor serves as the principal investigator.
Be sure to check out the Phil Ward lab website.
Ward welcomes visitors with:
"We are a group of myrmecologists who study the taxonomy, evolution, biogeography and behavior of ants.
"In many terrestrial habitats – especially those of the lowland tropics – ants rival other arthropods in numerical abundance, ecological importance and species richness. Our research is concerned with unraveling details about the evolutionary history of ants and attempting to understand the processes that have generated such an extraordinary diversity of form and function. This work entails both species-level taxonomy and analyses of phylogenetic relationships.
"Visit our research pages to learn more about current projects."
And for amazing photos of ants, check out the websites of University of Illinois biologist-insect photographer Alex Wild, former graduate student of Phil Ward's. Wild maintains http://myrmecos.net/ and http://www.alexanderwild.com/.
Ladybugs, aka ladybeetles (family Coccinellidae), are best known for devouring aphids, those pesky little critters that suck plant juices.
But have you ever seen ladybugs gobbling ants?
There's a three-way predator-prey relationship here. When aphids pierce plant stems, they leave behind honeydew excretions. Ants scurry to the honeydew and quickly alert their buddies. Soon, you'll see a long trail of ants marching toward the honeydew.
Now enter the ladybug, which is attracted--quite nicely, thank you--to both aphids and ants.
This little beetle will feast on aphids and ants much like we humans chow down on popcorn and jelly beans at a movie.
In the photos below, unsuspecting ants climbed a lavender stalk, only to meet their demise.
If you look on You Tube, you'll see a video of an apparently famished ladybug chowing down ants. The background music of Queen's "We Will Rock You" adds the finishing touch.
Want to learn more about ants? Check out professor Phil Ward's website. He's a noted myrmecologist (one who studies the taxonomy, evolution, biogeography and behavior of ants) and a professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
One of his former graduate students, Alex Wild, has incredible insect photography on his website, appropriately named myrmecos.net.
Ant specialist Andrea Lucky, who will receive her doctorate in entomology on June 10 from UC Davis, will speak on the evolutionary history of ants on Wednesday, May 12 in 122 Briggs, UC Davis.
This is her "exit seminar" but it's doubling as part of the spring seminar series. Her talk, from 12:10 to 1 p.m., will be Webcast live. To tune in, access this site.
She researches the evolutionary history of ants in the geological complex region of Australasia, Melanesia and the islands of the Western Pacific.
“I use a combination of traditional morphological taxonomy and molecular phylogenetics to interpret how, when and where individual lineages diversified within this complex landscape,” said Lucky, who maintains a research website and studies with major professor Phil Ward. “In addition to my work on the biogeography of ants, I am also involved in biodiversity assessment and conservation using ants in Papua, New Guinea.”
You can watch a mini- interview of her in New Guinea on YouTube.
Lucky completed her undergraduate degree at Brown University in Providence, RI, where she majored in biology with an emphasis on ecology and evolutionary biology.
After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she traveled to Ecuador as a Fulbright Fellow, where she worked with insects in the Amazon.
Lucky entered the doctorate program in the UC Davis Department of Entomology in 2004 and completed her degree in the lab of Phil Ward.
After receiving her Ph.D., she will move on to a postdoctoral scholarship at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where she will work with Rob Dunn on a project examining geographic variation in ants and the processes they mediate.
If you miss any of the UC Davis Department of Entomology webcasts, they're archived.
These webcasts are a good resource for entomologists, would-be entomologists, and folks of the curious-sort who just want to learn more about the exciting world of science.
And, somewhere out there, there's another young entomologist who will follow in Andrea Lucky's footsteps...trailing ants.