Paper of the week: adaptive evolution

This week’s Paper of the Week is Deborah Charlesworth’s, Nick Barton’s and Brian Charlesworth’s timely review of the sources of adaptive variation in evolution. In response to claims made by supporters of an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Deborah, Brian and Nick place the neo-Darwinian process of genetic evolution – as encapsulated by the Modern Synthesis – at the heart of biological evolution. Okay, preaching to the converted in my case, but required reading otherwise. For a copy of the paper go here.

Thesis and paper!

Double congratulations to Ginny – she has successfully submitted her thesis this afternoon, and also her next paper is now out in print in Animal Behaviour (go here for open-access to the paper). Ginny’s thesis explores the causes and consequences of mating failure in our bugs, and her AB paper – with soon-to-be grad student Vicki Balfour – tests whether female Lygaeus simulans use pre-copulatory choice to avoid mating failure (I leave you on tenterhooks about the answer… go read it!). We have at least two more papers to come from Ginny, so we’ll keep you posted about those.

Ginny’s thesis (times three)!

bee sex

In the last post, I exhorted everyone to go out and watch animals, and as luck would have it, on the way to buy lunch, I managed to do just that, spending some happy minutes watching these two bumblebees copulating away (Bombus terrestris I think; I will wait for Pat Willmer to correct me; the picture below is of the pair in question – aren’t mobile phone cameras amazing?!). Interestingly, it looks as though the male has to avoid being stung on his tummy during copulation – and people say blokes have it easy during sex…

If – like me – watching insects have sex is a thing with you, come and join our lab – please feel free to email me anytime.

Book of the week: the Peckhams on wasps

This week’s Book of the Week is “Wasps.┬áSocial and Solitary” by George and Elizabeth Peckham, published in the UK in 1905. It is simply wonderful, in many ways.

I have been dipping into this book over the last few weeks or so, and astounded and delighted in equal measure by the wealth of behavioural observations the Peckhams made of the rich and varied wasp fauna around their home in Wisconsin at the turn of the century (a fauna to be thoroughly envious of!). Whilst the language is at times antiquated or quaint (although I found it utterly charming), they made a remarkable series of detailed observations, and light-touch experiments, to explore how a whole variety of wasp species navigated, foraged for prey, built and tended nests, and generally went about their business. Undoubtedly hundreds of hours went into the observations summarised in this book (and in their other publications).

They clearly understood behavioural variation, plasticity, and the role of learning in shaping wasp behaviour, and they uncovered clear evidence of tool use in Ammophila wasps (using stones to hammer down the soil at entrances to completed burrows) and clear evidence of something like foresight (wasps bringing prey to burrows, such that the burrow needed to be extended to fit the prey, or the prey item manipulated – legs bent or cut-away – sometimes before the wasp even tried to put the prey in the burrow). Two lessons are clear: first, the more we look at insects, the “cleverer” they seem (Lars Chittka, among others, is reminding us of that very elegantly with the papers coming out of his lab right now); second, early students of animal behaviour were neither necessarily typological nor indifferent to plasticity in their thinking, and we should be wary of assuming otherwise. But more importantly, they emphasise how important it is to get out into the field and look at what your animals are actually doing.

The Peckhams were not just close students of the natural history of wasps (and jumping spiders), they were important figures in the spread and development of Darwinian thinking in the US, especially in terms of Darwinian views of sexual selection. They were also important educators and served in the local library services.

Graduation congratulations

Graduations are like Christmas – I wish they could come every day. What a joyful celebration. I love it. Congratulations to all St Andrews graduates, including those close to the lab. And special congratulations to Vicki who was awarded the Biology Medal, and also to Jane who was awarded both the Biology Medal, and also the Oxford University Press Achievement in Biosciences Prize. Wonderful!

Surviving misinformation: a blog post

Here is an interesting and useful blog post from the guys at NHBS:

Some useful hints on books to read. Science thrives on dissent, new findings, new ideas and challenges to received wisdom. But science also needs honesty (in terms of both observations and also the generous acknowledgment of what is already known), scholarship, thoughtfulness, and time. It is not clear to me that many scientific controversies would survive long if everyone involved availed themselves of those four attributes. It is also not clear to me that many such controversies are deeply reductive, either in terms of crudely engineered positions of opposition for whatever end (be it the interests of the fossil fuel industry, or a given culture-wars stance for instance), or in terms of simplified narratives of research trajectories. We need to do better. Heavy words are so lightly thrown.

New lab motto

We have a new lab motto: Strong but kind. Thanks to Maria for the motto, and Georgina for the inspiration.

Extensive field testing has shown that strength through kindness is more effective than weakness through meanness.


More congratulations – three firsts for the lab

Many congratulations to Jane Gordon and Emma Laurent for their first class Honours degrees, and also for their exceptional first class Honours projects done in our lab (Jane on the bugs, Emma on the wasps – papers to follow…). And also many congratulations to Vicki Balfour, who also got a first class degree. Vicki is an old lab-hand, but went off to play with hummingbirds for her Honours project (can’t think why…), but she will be back this autumn to start her PhD with us.

Well done all of you – nice one!