Archive for the ‘Narcissistic megalomania’ Category

yes, better than Starwars and World of Warcraft together, the wars of ants. Last year in our lab, we set up wars between different species, among the most aggressive in the world.

I’m sure you can imagine. Monstrous armies of millions of Unsullied warriors, impervious to danger, dedicated to the death, working together with the efficacy given by millions of years of evolution, all entirely bent to one single purpose, destroying the other armies. I’m certain to are picturing this. Well, you are picturing it wrong, you immature brutes. So, what did we do and why did we do it?

It was a time when a Ph D student (Cleo Bertelsmeier) was studying the effect of climate change on invasive ants. I’ve told you already why we study invasive ants. If you’ve missed it, you can read it here. The first part of the PhD thesis was to build up species distribution models to try and predict where invasive ants would find favorable regions with climate change (ants are very sensitive to climate, and milder winters may mean higher probability of establishment). And the result was that some of the most problematic invasive ant species were predicted to arrive at the same place in several regions. And because the most obvious characteristics of all these invasive ants is that they are extremely efficient at removing other arthropods, starting with local ant species, we naturally wondered what would happen if two of such Hun armies were to clash in newly invaded territories. Or in other words, is there among these tiny berserk beasts one that would take over all the others (and the rest of the world with it).

So we set up colonies of four of the worst of the worst. These were the invasive garden ant Lasius neglectus, the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, the big-headed ant Pheidole megacephala and the electric ant Wasmannia auropunctata. The experiment set up by Cleo was not really the wars you pictured, but they were enough for our purposes: boxes with colonies of 300 workers and one queen, put into contact by a tiny tube, and days of counting the dead and the survivors. And these taught us a lot. First, that the experiments of one worker versus another in a Petri dish – often set up to establish dominance hierarchies among ant species – are not well suited, because some ants species need other workers to kill others. Some ants hold the enemy while it is being cut into pieces, and you can’t do that when you’re alone, and you’ll systematically lose in duels but not necessarily a battle. It also mean that classical experiments of 10 vs 10 workers in a Petri dish are also problematic, because the lack of natural conditions can bias the results. These ants are very stressed, more or less forced to fight, and with no territory, nest or queen to defend (which was not the case in our experiment). Last, it taught us that ants adapt their strategies according to their opponents. Some species that are very aggressive and kill everything were less so when confronted to potentially stronger adversaries. Some even escaped or feigned death. And some raided the other colonies D-Day style improved with chemical weaponry, with many losses but an eventual conquest while some others remained in their strongholds and privileged defense. And eventually it taught us that when you increase complexity, for example by putting all four species together, you increase… well complexity. Here, the species that systematically lost against any of the three others won half the time when all four were fighting simultaneously.

Now I’m sure you’d like to know who was the meanest of the four. The tiny electric ant, so named for its terribly painful sting? Or the scary big-headed ants, which soldiers can cut in two any of the other species? Well, I guess that to know that you’ll have to read the paper (and perhaps that one too about their strategies)… Yes, I know, I’m mean. That’s what the ants say too.


Of course, the best fighter of all remains the Ant-man

When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments


You want personal? I give you personal. My year in California; it will be the year of many things, but it will definitely be the year of trying triathlon. Of tri-ing.
I started with an experience in the three sports amounting to only a poor 8 months of running. No swimming (ever, I didn’t even know how to). No biking (ever, I didn’t even have a bike). No idea whatsoever of what a transition is, or why three sports in a row is so much more difficult than the mere sum of the three.

That was a big challenge, but I was there for the challenge. Otherwise I wouldn’t have picked the university team that was (and remained) the USA champions (UCLA Triathlon). An amazing team that awed me and inspired me, but that also made me feel ridiculously slow, fat, old and generally unfit. Because triathlon is everything but easy. Oh, yes, I have sweated, I have bled, I have ached and moaned. I have discovered what it means to be so oxygen deprived that even clutching the pool side I couldn’t catch up my breath and was slowly drifting into both asphyxiation and panic. I have seen people faint and collapse around me during races and wondered whether I was next. I now know what it’s like to see white spots while swimming, to feel lost in the ocean, to feel unable to climb further up a slope, to run for hours on giant blisters, to keep going even as darkness pulls around, to puke on the side of the road or to stay awake all night long with a body full of hormones and pains after a race.

I have lost sleep; I have lost weight; I have lost toenails; I have lost pride; but I have never lost focus nor courage. I never gave up, even when the rest of the team was so effortlessly losing me in swims, in rides and in runs. Even when my highest achievements were dwarfed by the lowest of theirs. I have found determination, I have found strength in my microscopic progresses. I have found sound advice and kind encouragement. I have found a coach, and mentor and a team.

And I have found pleasure. I have found pleasure in progressively feeling stronger, faster, tougher, more enduring. And I have found pleasure in fighting my fears, in overcoming my limitations, in pushing my limits, in never, ever giving up. I found pleasure in stringing races, in running in Death Valley, in biking with Marines, in passing so many racers in the ocean. I come back to France having now run 7 half-marathons, three marathons and four triathlons, many in difficult conditions. I was pleased to finish within the first 20% racers at my last semi-marathon, which was one week after my last triathlon, itself 5 days after my last marathon. My overall feeling is that although I have never been skilled, I have pushed myself, and never failed.

So, this is supposed to be a blog somehow related to scientific research?! WTF? Ok, here’s the message. First, research is relatively easy; even a PhD is relatively easy. Believe me. There are much harder endeavors, stop complaining if you are. Second, whatever your goals, you can reach them if you put your mind into it. Nothing is out of your reach. If you don’t push away your limits, you’ll remain limited. Third, hard work, tenacity, courage and strength of will can go a long way towards compensating lack of skills or other disadvantages in our academic world (such as being young, being a woman or being a non-English speaker). Last, even difficult, painful, long endeavors can provide pleasure, sometimes just because you managed to overcome the obstacles you once believed to be insuperable.

Now, that’s done; Note to self: second step, give this text to my PhD just before I give them some additional, hard work.



It may seem odd that someone often known as a conservation biologist would promote and defend basic ecology. Yet, I do. I do because I feel basic ecology needs promoting and defending. In a time when environmental crises are so worrying (at least for those who are aware of them), it is normal that people, including scientists, would want to favour applied ecology. That is, after all, a science directly committed to solving environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradations, food security, emerging diseases, climate change and the likes.

As a result, the trend has been in the past decades to increasingly favour applied ecology; and because budgets are not extensible, that has been at the expense of basic ecology.

Yet, there are many reasons why basic ecology – or fundamental ecology – is important. I will not enumerate them all here, you’ll probably want to read the article I just wrote, with 4 other authors in the last issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution, here if you subscribe, for for free here*. But I can still pick up a few, just to arouse your curiosity, because I’m sure you didn’t think of them all, and several might surprise you a bit.

And then not! Go read the paper, I’m feeling lazy today and I’ve been told to keep my posts shorts. But of course, you can use this blog to tell me why you disagree. Because, unlike applied ecology, debate is fundamental in science.

by Ari Weinkle

* you can download the paper from the link on this post or directly from my lab web page here. I shouldn’t offer it like that, but I am in the process to pay for the Open Access and I don’t want to wait until it is available for readers to access it easily.



Just a short note to inform you of the results of the BNP Paribas public vote: we won!
for those of you who followed the unbearable suspens of this sage, here are the figures:
FATES = 329
SOCLIM = 597
APT = 3361

So thank to you (yes, you), our research group is awarded an additional 50.000€ for communication purposes. We will use this money in two major ways. We will first buy the design and construction of an interactive web site to explain our results to the public, and allow them (yes, you again) to check that we are not just playing angrybirds all day long, ask questions and request all the analyses they want. We will also use this money to hire a communication officer that will be in charge of this web site, of dealing with emails from the public (i.e. replying to insulting ones and forwarding me the nice ones), of writting media memos and of many other things that we scientists are too clumsy to do ourselves.
Anyways, this is an opportunity to once more thank you all for your votes!
From the hysteria in France and the US to the delirium in Indonesia and Brazil and the frenzy in Australia and China, we now know we can count on hordes of devoted followers, ready to the craziest things for us, even sometimes read this blog.



The Fundation BNP Parisbas selected 5 scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50 000 € (that’s US$ 62,000) to one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost.

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease carrying tiger-mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide. InvaCost is described a bit in an earlier post, here.

Our communication project is really different from anything that has been done before, and very probably different from the four other projects. In addition to building an interactive website to communicate with the public, show and explain our results and answer your questions, we will inaugurate a new type of citizen science, or participatory science: the public will be able to select some of the 20 invasive species we will study in InvaCost, from a large list we will compile. You will also be able to ask us to do specific analyses, for example “will Argentine ants be able to invade the UK?” or “where will the Formosan termite invasion expand in the USA” or “Is the malaria mosquito likely to reach my city and when?”. We will then collect the data, build and run the mathematical models, analyse the outputs and show and explain the results.

In a word, you will chose the subject and the questions, and we will do science for you. The money will be used to design and run the web site and to hire staff to interact with the public and make specific analyses during the four years of InvaCost. The communication project is described here.

So if you want to see that happen, it’s quite simple, vote for our project, by going here. And forward the message around, we will likely need tens of thousands of votes to be selected. Thanks in advance, we look forward to working with you!


I’m normally not a big fan of citizen sciences. Because as trained scientists we strive so carefully to achieve the upmost rigour, I always have this irrational uneasiness when it comes to handling data that have been collected by thousands of uncontrolled volunteers, good-willing but sometimes scientifically unqualified. Citizen science is a great idea though. In a nutshell, it is the fact of using the network of citizen to gather simple raw data and send them to a centralizing team that will assemble it into a giga-dataset that we scientists, with our slow performing slaves, sorry students, cannot even dream of achieving on our own. That way, we can learn about the changes in arrival dates of migrating birds all over Europe, we can more quickly identify star clusters and exoplanets, or reconstruct past climates from thousands of log books of old ships.

So citizen sciences means science made from data collected by citizen. It is nice because it gives enormous datasets to scientists, but also a nice feedback to citizen: in general those implied are interested in birds, or stars, or ships, and are happy to be involved in projects and know the results on programmes in which they have contributed.

It’s a win-win situation, but I thought there could be more to gain for the citizen. This is why, in the days to come, our group – Biodiversity Dynamics – will present a new project in which citizen can do more than collect data and find out the results. Way more.

We have been awarded a grant from the Fondation BNP-Paribas to study the effects of climate change on invasive insects. If you want to know more about why insects could very well invade our regions in the near future and how this is going to be bugging, read this post. If you want to know more about which species are likely to invade where, and when, than this is for you: we will propose in this project to involve citizen in a way they have never been so far. Citizen will not collect the data here, they will instead play (some of) the scientist role: they will ask questions. That’s right. You will start by choosing (some of) the insect species that we will work on. We will propose a list of interesting cases and you will be able to select one from them. We will set up an interactive website to post our results such as distribution maps and graphs and you will also be able to ask for more (e.g., “would it be possible to model the potential distribution of invasive fire ants in England in 2050?”). If the requests are reasonable and within our reach, we will do it and post the results (with the explanations). If they are not, we will explain why (so that you can stop taking us for scientists from the TV shows and ask us irrealistic things).

There is a catch though. This “novel citizen science” project will exist only if we win the vote of the public, which will select one project over 6. I will post soon the vote links so that you can unleash the mad clicking-beast that hides in you and thus allow us to serve you better. For, always remember that, as scientists, our ultimate goal is serving Humanity.


Of course Gibbs, every scientist is like me: an expert in all possible fields that will give you awesome results within the hour