A colleague of mine who teaches entomology at a university in France invited me last week to talk with one of his MSc. classes about life, the universe, and everything. We skipped the universe part because astronomy is boring, but the conversation on life – and the study of it – was pretty interesting. Among other things, their questions were centered about what kind of feasible research I find to be valuable – the goal of the exercise was to help them in finding their way in their research theses and their academic future.
Since the conversation was all in French, I didn’t bother recording it for the blog, but here is an abridged transcript of a couple of parts from the Q&A of general interest. Other questions were about my own research and experiences from doing academic research while not being in academia. In all, the Skype session lasted ~20 minutes, with 5 minutes of introduction. Quick and dirty, only meant to take up half the lesson time because their literature session didn’t have that much literature in it that week.
What insect neuroscience research would you do if you had a lab with unlimited funding?
As far as I know, currently, all studies on insect neurology concern what happens when an insect is doing a specific action – foraging bees looking for a target, moving legs, chemical stimulation, that sort of thing. These are ineresting in their own right, of course, but I would personally find some value in finding out how the neuronal machinery is acting when the insect is at rest, not seeking to fulfil any particular goal or task. This has been a recent development in human neuroscience at least – they call it research into the “default-mode brain” – and the insights from it could serve us well in finding out about the general cognition of insects.
What are some ways in which our knowledge of individual insect ecology can be furthered without using fancy technology, but also without hours of observations in the field or lab?
That seems like a utopian wish, I can’t really think of much. One thing that comes to mind could be architecture and integrating it with physics. For example, I work a lot with the ecology of larval antlions and their pit traps, and some of my results include that contrary to what is normally found, the size of the antlion pit doesn’t necessarily correlate to hunger level. Whether this is a fluke or not, I don’t know, but what I can also hypothesise is that simply measuring diameter is insufficient. We know that the substrate that antlions are digging in also has an effect, and we know that antlion traps are very precise constructs, with the slightest disturbance by an ant causing it to collapse. This is because of the contouring on the perimeter of the pit, which can very easily and precisely be measured with a pinhole camera and some hours spent programming. This is just an idea kicking around in my head involving shadows (I did somewhat similar work when working with µ-CTs), but it should be feasible to get a precise topography of the pit perimeter. Integrating that with some physics will give us a very good view of just how the antlion pit works and how that flows into their ecology.
Which taxonomic group would you like to see more work done on?
I will have to say staphylinids. They’re the most diverse family of insect, but their identification even to subfamily level is pretty hard, or so I find. The literature, including keys, is also fairly scattered. If anyone can make a good comprehensive regional species key for the Eastern Mediterranean, I’d be eternally grateful, especially since staphs are one of the more important forest ecosystem components, and the bulk of my entomological research here takes place in forests.
What is your favourite research program taking place nowadays?
I love the wrk that’s being done with the evo-devo of wing patterns in butterflies. It’s an excellent system for investigating all the levels of macroevolution, from the genetic underpinning of novel features all the way through to their effects on fitness through ecological success, especially when it comes to eyespots which are used to deter predators. This research is going to provide all the insights needed for the new evolutionary synthesis that’s coming to supersede the Modern Synthesis.
What about when the research has to involve botany?
The research about how plants reacts to eggs and larvae. I especially liked a study from a couple of years ago that showed that Pieris brassicae eggs can cause the host plant to release chemicals thatsuppress the plant’s defensive system, thereby allowing the caterpillars free access to the plant. It’s hilarious. And also a very cool research topic.