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…

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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:

www.mimicryexperiment.net

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!).

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“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 »

To bee or not to bee – why some insects pretend to be dangerous

I just had my first article published at the Conversation – an excellent online collaboration between journalists and academics. As part of their publishing model, anybody can share any articles. So here’s mine!

To bee or not to bee – why some insects pretend to be dangerous

Christopher Hassall, University of Leeds

In the summer of 2011, panic gripped a small community in Gatineau, Quebec. Hundreds of small, striped insects were buzzing around a children’s playground. The playground was evacuated and entomologists were called in to establish whether or not the animals were dangerous. The answer was no, but it is easy to see why local residents were concerned. The animals that had taken up residence in the playground were hoverflies, a family of harmless fly species that have built up quite an arsenal of tricks to convince would-be predators that they are dangerous.

The panic that a swarm of hoverflies can generate belies the fact that they are immensely beneficial insects. Many of their larvae (the baby hoverflies that look like maggots) crawl around on plants feeding on the aphids that would otherwise eat our flowers and crops. Meanwhile the adults –- the stripy, flying insects that instil such terror –- spend their days pollinating flowers as they feed on nectar and pollen. But flying around in the open leaves hoverflies vulnerable to predators, a problem they have solved by evolving to resemble the stinging, pollinating insects such as bees and wasps with which they share the flowers.

Yet the story is not quite so simple. For every hoverfly that presents an exquisite example of mimicry (like the wonderful Spilomyia longicornis pictured above) there are several that really do not seem to be trying at all. Given that mimicry can obviously benefit hoverflies, why don’t they all evolve such excellent abilities?

Researchers found a potential solution to this Darwinian puzzle in 2012, when they looked into the characteristics of mimicking and non-mimicking hoverflies. You might expect that birds would prefer to eat larger species of hoverfly, since those hoverflies represent a bigger, more rewarding meal. Those larger species would therefore have more to gain from mimicry because they are under greater pressure from predators. Sure enough, it turns out that the colour patterns of the largest hoverflies (which are effectively flying buffets for birds) bear a close resemblance to the yellow, black, and white stripes of wasps and bees. The smallest species (which are barely worth chasing) do not show such similarity.

However, hoverflies have more than just wasp-like costumes. Some species also have considerable acting talents. It has been known for decades that certain hoverflies will pretend to sting when attacked, or hold their dark front legs in front of their heads to make it appear as though their antennae are long like those of wasps.

A recent extensive field survey showed that the species that behaved like wasps and bees were comparatively rare (just like the species that look like wasps and bees). This behavioural mimicry also tended to occur only in those species that already showed a strong visual resemblance to wasps and bees. In other words, those species that had the costumes also had the acting skills.

Insect sound bites

One of the most fascinating aspects of hoverfly mimicry has recently been dissected in great detail. As well as looking like wasps and bees, and acting like wasps and bees, some species also sound like wasps and bees. As part of our most recent project, my colleagues and I caught 172 insects from 13 species of hoverflies and nine species of wasps and bees, and brought them into a soundproofed recording studio. There, they recorded the sounds the insects made during regular flight and when the animal was attacked (simulated using a sharp poke with a pair of tweezers).

When they ran a statistical analysis on these sounds, the researchers found that some species of hoverfly make sounds when they are attacked that are indistinguishable from the high-pitched alarm buzz of bumble bees. The high-pitched buzz that bumble bees make seems to be produced by the bee unhooking its wings from the muscles that drive them, resulting in a completely different sound. This is a bit like what happens when you take your car out of gear and rev the engine – a lot of noise and you don’t go anywhere. It seems that hoverflies are capable of the same behaviour.

A board covered in ‘pastry prey’ used for experiments on wild bird predation.

But just because statistical analysis can’t tell the difference, that doesn’t mean natural predators can’t. To test for the benefits of this sound imitation in the wild, researchers presented pastry models of insects to wild birds with the different sounds. Pastry has approximately the same nutritional content as the insects that the birds forage on naturally, being part fat and part carbohydrate. The pastry can also be painstakingly painted to resemble insects as well, as in the photo to the right. To the surprise of the researchers, the birds only avoided the bee sounds. This was despite the fact that the hoverflies sounded identical to the computer-based analysis.

So we are left with a situation where an animal brain outperforms human researchers and their technical wizardry, which is not altogether surprising. Birds have evolved alongside a host of potential prey, developing the ability to find safe prey while avoiding animals that sting. While the hoverflies have a complex and fascinating suite of acting skills to dissuade would-be predators, they are still part of an evolutionary “arms race” where predators either keep up or starve.

The best part of this particular story is that it is possible to watch it unfold in your back garden. Next time you see or hear an animal that makes you reach instinctively for the rolled up newspaper, take a minute to check that it isn’t one of nature’s great actors.

The Conversation

Christopher Hassall, Lecturer in Animal Biology, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Avoiding Attack! (a classroom kit)

I blogged some time ago about a Cafe Scientifique talk I gave on the topic of “Avoiding Attack” (broadly mimicry and camouflage in animals). I stole the title of the talk wholesale from the excellent book of the same name written by former colleagues Mike Speed and Tom Sherratt along with Graeme Ruxton). After giving that talk, I was asked to contribute to the Leeds Festival of Science – a great initiative where University of Leeds staff engage local people (particularly schools) with their research through on-campus and external events. As part of that event this year I took part in the “schools roadshow” where researchers go out into schools to teach about their work. I thought I would post the resources that I used here with some notes so that teachers can make use of the materials that I produced. Everything here is released on a Creative Commons license (CC-BY 4.0).

20150318_094110Read 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.

References

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, https://flic.kr/p/qodUNR, all rights reserved, used with permission.

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 »

Ecology and Evolution PhD Opportunities at the University of Leeds

I’m delighted to announce a suite of additional PhD projects in the School of Biology at the University of Leeds (scheme details are here).  These are in addition to the dozen or so competitively-funded projects through our NERC DTP, so please do check there as well if you are interested.  Most titles are indicative of the broad research area, but there will usually be a great deal of flexibility in the nature of the project depending on the interests of the student.  The deadline for all projects is Thursday 29th January 2015, and applicants will need to have submitted a research degree application form (see our “How to apply” page) and be in receipt of a student ID number prior to application for the scheme. Briefly, the titles are:

  • The Evolution of Plant Form
  • Marine microbial processes and interactions
  • Improving piglet survival and subsequent performance
  • Managing soil plant processes to enhance the sustainable intensification of agriculture
  • Emerging Infectious Diseases
  • Continental trends in, and drivers of, the spread of European aquatic invasive species
  • Biomimicry, biophilia, and urban design solutions
  • Identifying and investigating factors which improve sow performance in Irish pig herds

See the project summaries below for more details.Read More »