Walking 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 »
Dragonflies 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).
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”.
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).
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.
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:
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.
Something strange seems to be happening in one particular species of damselfly, the common blue jewel Rhinocypha perforata (pictured right). Or at least it has been caught on video for the first time… Aside from being a particularly attractive species of damselfly found in China, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam, the common blue jewel seems to adopt a rather unusual form of reproduction (for an insect, at least). Read More »
I got an email from our university press officer earlier this week asking “whether we have a ‘zoologist who could participate in a light-hearted discussion about who would win in a fight between a tiger and a rhino on Friday morning’.” The request was from the local BBC Radio Leeds team who wanted to break up their coverage of the Leeds Rhinos vs Castleford Tigers rugby league Challenge Cup final preparations with some light-hearted digressions. I have resolved to take a more active part in science communication (including this blog), because I see that as a fundamental part of my job (even if it is little-rewarded…) and so I agreed to do it.Read More »
There are lots of ways to fool an observer, and I mentioned quite a few in my post on the Cafe Scientifique talk that I gave in September. However, one aspect that I didn’t mention there was “behavioural mimicry” – where an animal acts like another animal in order to fool a potential predator or prey. This sort of behaviour has been reported plenty of times in the field, but has never been studied in a systematic way. My collaborators over at Carleton (led by Tom Sherratt and Heather Penney, who collected the data as part of her MSc thesis work) and I have just published a paper (press release here) which provides just such an overview, and tests a few key evolutionary hypotheses along the way.Read More »
In September I gave a Cafe Scientifique talk at the Leeds City Museum on the evolution of mimicry and camouflage. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, Cafe Scientifique offers an opportunity for scientists to give short (or long, depending on how it is run) talks on their research to a general audience and then take questions in an informal setting. I have always been a fan of this kind of outreach, and when Clare Brown, the curator of Natural History at Leeds Museum asked if I wanted to give a talk I jumped at the opportunity. I spent a bit of time pulling resources together for the talk and I thought I would post them here in case anybody else could find a use for them. I have outlined the talk I gave below:Read More »