This Blog is part of our “Get to Know Our Ambassadors” Series. Each week, we’ll highlight a new Ambassador to help students understand more about the diversity of people and research projects available to students.
You may have heard that insects are the solution to the world hunger problem. Assuming that you never ate a caterpillar before, your choice would based entirely on appearance: their colour, shape, and patterns. So, if you were going to try to eat a caterpillar which one would you eat?
Most people would stay away from the spiky ones, and with reason! Spikes are often loaded with toxins. But have you noticed that the spiky ones are often colourful? Scientists call this a warning coloration – or aposematism. Aposematism is when an animal advertises to predators that it may be a bad idea to take a bite.
Aposematism is what I research, except with the more charismatic version of caterpillars: Butterflies!
I have been running around Australia with a butterfly catching net to figure out where these beautifully coloured butterflies are, and if their distribution and abundancy is dependant on factors like climate, predation, or mimics. After I catch them, I take them to the lab to measure their colour, toxicity and for identification using DNA Sequencing.
Studying about the evolution of coloration is important to understand the complex interactions between organisms and their environment. My research helps to understand predator-prey interactions which is important for conservation. Untangling the relationship between warning colour and climate is crucial because if colours change in response se to the temperature an individual develops in, animals may lose their ability to signal properly!
Warning coloration is also a particularly cool topic because the chemical compounds found in animals can have pharmacological applications. By studying the chemical makeup of animals, we can identify new natural sources of drugs and develop technologies inspired by their adaptations. There have been multiple technologies develop from studying invertebrates like paper made out of wood (you can thank paper wasps for that), a water gathering device from fog that can help people on desserts acquire water (based on the behaviour of a beetle from Namibia) or more efficient solar panels (inspired by butterfly wings), so it is very exciting to be a part of finding new applications of the natural world.
Just like the predators that are searching for yummy caterpillars, in Xenon Crown students will be faced with choices of which prey to eat. Prey items will either help students survive or end the game more quickly, much like a real-life predator diet. Hunting down a toxic butterfly can have multiple costs, such as wasted hunting time, vomiting stomach content, or immune costs to neutralize toxins. Students will be faced with foraging decisions that will teach them about different defensive strategies, many which are associated with coloration.
Hop along the wonderful world of animal coloration with me and be prepared for the next time you get stuck on a stranded island by learning what animals and plants should be avoided.