Help us understand mimicry!

Picture1I have written about mimicry before, describing why most mimics are imperfect and how some mimics imitate not only the appearance of other animals but also their sounds and behaviour. Now, I need your help with an ambitious experiment to test theories about the evolution of mimicry. Most people know that there are harmless animals that have yellow and black stripes to look like stinging bees and wasps. But did you know that there are many thousands of such species, all with different degrees of “bee-ness” or “waspiness”? The new experiment is designed to compare 56 harmless hoverflies with 42 wasps and bees to measure how similar they are. That’s 2,352 unique comparisons! This information will allow us to test exciting new ideas about the evolution of mimicry. There’s only one catch…

With his beard and odd dress sense, Uncle Sam would have made a fine entomologist!

This particular experiment will use the human brain as a processing tool and the power of the crowd to generate data. It’s a bit like “Strictly Come Mimicking” (or “Mimicking with the Stars“, if you’re in the US): you just need to rate how similar you think the two insects appear out of 10. I’d appreciate it greatly if you could take some time to run through the experiment below. Don’t do it thinking that there is an end, though – there are 2,352 combinations, remember, and the images are randomly paired on each screen! You can access the experiment here:

My goal is to reach 10 ratings of each pair of insects. That means a total of 23,520 ratings. I know this is a long shot, but that’s the aim, people! Please do share it far and wide! I’ll share regular updates on the blog as the ratings come in (however many or few there are!).


“Noble nature”…?

20161231_184514Walking home after a few drinks on New Year’s Eve, I spotted a small sign in a shop window. The text says:

“As the bee collects nectar and departs without injuring the flower, so should a man behave in his village”

– Dhammapada (1st Century BC)

Two things sprang immediately to mind. The first was the tendency that we have to attribute greater emphasis to quotes from older civilisations, despite the fact that those civilisations are less developed. Older civilisations are not wise like older people – they are actually younger in an absolute sense (as pointed out by Eliezer Yudkowsky). It is as if being from a time far distant to our own confers wisdom that we perceive lacking in contemporary society.

However, the second thing that occurred to be was that “that’s not how bees work”… Pollination is a mutualism most of the time, but not always. By offering a nectar resource in exchange for the transfer of pollen, flowers have evolved relatively straightforward paths to that nectar for their respective pollinators. Sometimes that is a big, open flower that can be accessed by many species, but other times the flower has a peculiar shape or the nectar well is particularly inaccessible. The latter cases often result in very specific species that are able to access the nectar using particular behaviours or very long tongues.Read More »

Can you recognise individual dragonflies from their faces?

bug-189906_1920Dragonflies are beautiful, alien-looking animals. They have bits that move and bend in ways that you wouldn’t expect, enormous eyes, and intricately patterned wings. I have written about the hydraulic gill system of dragonfly larvae, which powers both their jet propulsion and their “mask” that grabs prey. Meanwhile, dragonfly adults have basket-like legs to ensnare prey, as well as flexible abdomens which they use to form mating “hearts”. I’ve been interested in why dragonflies look the way they do, and that that means for their evolution, for a number of years.

I was intrigued, therefore, to read a paper that described how a pair of scientists had been able to tell dragonflies apart just by looking at the markings on their bodies. I do not remember how I first came across it, but the work is described in this German paper published in 2009 in the journal Entomo Helvetica by Schneider and Wildermuth*. The paper described a population of the southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea) in which a substantial number of animals could be identified from their facial markings. The paper is not creative commons so I can’t share the document, but you can see for yourself if you download the manuscript from the public link above and look at Figure 2 (it’s worth it – the pictures are stunning!). The title of the paper translates as “Dragonflies as individuals: the example of Aeshna cyanea“. So why might these markings occur?

There are lots of reasons why it might be advantageous for animals to be able to identify individuals. You might be trying to identify mates of high quality to increase your chances of reproduction. Many social animals (including humans, but also ants, meerkats, and molerats) distinguish relatives from non-relatives or friend from foe using sight or smell. Many theories of how cooperation evolved rely on animals having repeated interactions with one another, and remembering who has scratched whose back so that the favour can be repaid in the future. However, none of this applies to dragonflies. Dragonflies rarely have any structure to their mating (it’s usually first-come-first-served, and a mad scramble if many males are involved), they are not social (while they live in groups they do not necessarily act together), and they do not cooperate (apart from mobbing of predators such as hawks, but that’s probably not true cooperation).

A spandrel Photo by Maria Schnitzmeier, CC-BY-SA,

More likely what we are seeing is not the evolution of a trait, but the by-product of another trait. In a provocative article written in 1979, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin wrote about this idea**: that some things we observe in nature are not the product of evolution directly, but occur as a result of some adaptation. Gould and Lewontin gave the example of “spandrels” from Rennaisance architecture. Spandrels (like the example on the right, from the Basilica de San Marco in Venice) were the accidental byproduct of the way that arches were designed – a small curved area was left in the corner of the arch, and this was often filled with artistic renderings. However, the spandrel itself was never the focus of the design.

In the case of dragonfly faces, the same is likely true. Dark patches on insects are usually caused by a substance called “melanin” (which is the same pigment that produces darker skin in humans). Melanin is involved when insects fight off infections or heal injuries. It is most likely that the patterns on the faces of the dragonflies are due to some kind of damage, perhaps during emergence from the water, or perhaps as a result of conflict between territorial individuals. What is most interesting, though, is that Schneider and Wildermuth seem to have found a population in Switzerland that has an unusually high number of animals with such markings. When I went to Flickr to look through other photographs of this species, I found very very few examples. Below is a gallery of some of the creative commons photos, and there are many more if you go to Flickr yourself and search for “aeshna cyanea”.

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That’s not to say there are no other examples. See here and here for examples of the markings in other photographs (but note that many of the most striking examples are taken by the same photographer).

Photo by Zak Mitchell.

The researchers who published the original paper offered an interesting addition to the literature on understanding individual insects. Usually, we do this by marking the animals (with dragonflies you can write on their wings, for instance, as you can see on the right) or more recently by attaching radio transmitters. There are some species that use natural markings to identify individual animals, including work on whales, dolphins, and killer whales. The technique is also used for some amphibians where the underside of the animals is often mottled in unique ways. However, given the fact that the markings are not always present, that we don’t know how long they last, and that the method requires some very specific (and challenging!) photography, it is unlikely that this particular method will be used widely in insect ecology. Instead, the study highlights an interesting example of unexplained variation in dragonflies, which deserves more study in its own right.


*Schneider, B. and Wildermuth, H. (2009) Libellen als Individuen – zum Beispiel Aeshna cyanea (Odonata: Aeshnidae), Entomo Helvetica, 2: 185-199.

*Gould, S.J. and Lewontin, R.C. (1979) The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme” Proc. Roy. Soc. London B, 205: 581–598

Imposter syndrome and a note of thanks

A few weeks ago, I was honoured to have been given the Early Career Entomologist Award from the Royal Entomological Society and the Marsh Christian Trust. I’m not good at accepting praise and have always suffered from imposter syndrome. In the last year, I have done some relatively high profile events that have led to me speaking in front of hundreds of people. However, the thought of receiving an award in front of a few dozen of my peers terrified me. It is easy to sit in a lab or office all day, receiving scathing reviews of papers and grants (which are just par for the course, of course) and think that someone must have made a mistake when you finally achieve some degree of success.Read More »

Dragonfly mind control?

For those of you not familiar with Cordyceps fungus, that’s the one that attacks insects (and other arthropods) by infecting and then spreading through the whole body. The result is something like what you see below:

Dragonfly with Cordyceps infection (Ophiocordyceps odonatae)

Each one of those little growths is a “fruiting body” and that is where the fungus releases its spores in order to found new patches of fungus. The most famous of these kinds of fungi is perhaps Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which infects ants and influences their behaviour. The fungus forces an ant to climb a blade of grass or a twig and then attach there until it dies. Meanwhile the fungus produces a series of fruiting bodies that release spores from the new vantage point – the height helps those spores to disperse a greater distance. Apparently fossilised plants from 50m years ago also bear the marks of these Cordyceps-related attachments by insects, suggesting that this is an old battle.

What we don’t know is the extent to which Cordyceps influences the behaviour of other hosts. I posted the image above because it is the first time that I have seen a dragonfly infected in this way. It would make more sense (to me, at least!) for Cordyceps infecting a dragonfly to make it fly upwards while the fruiting bodies are releasing spores to broadcast those offspring as far as possible. However, the only image I have seen is this one where the animal is firmly rooted to the perch.

If it was a parasite that affected dragonfly flight then it wouldn’t be the first. A few recent studies (e.g. Suhonen et al. 2010) have suggested that dragonflies infected with parasitic mites that cling to the outside of the animal result in greater movement. It has been suggested that this could be an attempt to get out of an area with a high parasite population – after all, that’s not a great place to raise your little dragonfly family. However, we think this response has evolved to help the host and not the parasite, which is the opposite to the response elicited by the manipulative Cordyceps.


Suhonen, J., Honkavaara, J., Rantala, M.J. (2010) Activation of the immune system promotes insect dispersal in the wild, Oecologia, 162 (3): 541-547.

Image credit: Paul Bertner,, all rights reserved, used with permission.

PhD funding for biological research at the University of Leeds

book-631748_1280If you are interested in doing a PhD but are struggling to find funding that fits your project or have been unsuccessful in applications to the funding schemes that are scattered around (e.g. the NERC DTP schemes that are interviewing at the moment) then don’t despair! There are always funny little pots of money that you can apply to.  The University of Leeds has three such scholarships available that can be used to fund PhD research in biological sciences (and some other areas). These all close on 1st June but if you are interested in applying please do get in touch with me (or one of my colleagues in the Ecology and Evolution Research Group) to discuss a potential project.  The sooner the better!Read More »

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a monk!

I am fascinated by the field of “biomimetics” – attempting to find solutions to problems by looking to the natural world. Sometimes this involves buildings that work like termite nests, swimsuits that use tiny hooks like those found on shark skin, or Velcro that uses the same principles as seed burrs as an inspiration. However, among the most celebrated examples of biomimetics are those involving flight.

Charles_Le_Brun_-_Daedalus_and_Icarus_-_WGA12535There have been a great many legends describing early attempts at flight, with perhaps the most famous being that of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Daedalus created the Labyrinth on Crete for King Minos and the king imprisoned Daedalus in a tower so that he could not spread the knowledge of labyrinth-building to other kingdoms. Daedalus escapes with Icarus, but Icarus flies too close to the sun causing the wax holding his feathers melts and he falls into the sea and drowns. Daedalus, meanwhile, reaches Sicily (750km away). Ovid’s description of the myth states that Daedalus “…flexed each [feather] into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings”, and so this is clearly a calculated (if legendary) attempt to mimic bird flight.Read More »