Archive for the ‘Scientific selfie’ Category

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!

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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.

Abby

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

I have been working for years on biological invasions. You know, the species that are put into regions in which they don’t belong and that just expend madly and outcompete everything, unchecked. A bit like Mcdonald’s in France. Because I’ve also started working on the impact of climate change on biodiversity, I’ve naturally wondered (like many) whether climate change would affect biological invasions.

My group – Biodiversity Dynamics – has produced already some awesome work on that. For example, see here, here or here. Or here and here. Or here. Ok, I stop. You see, they produce too much, I’m not the only one to say that.

Anyways, because climate change is likely to make winters milder and habitats climatically more suitable year-round for cold-blooded animals like insects, we have been wondering whether invasive insects would be able to invade other regions with climate change. There are many very nasty bugs out there.

For example, the Asian predatory wasp is an invasive hornet in Europe that butchers pollinating insects, especially bees, thereby affecting the production of many wild and cultivated plants. And we all remember what Einstein said about pollinators: « if bees were to disappear, humans will disappear within a few years » (we all remember that because it’s one of the few things he said that we understood). The highly invasive red imported fire ant is feared for its impacts on biodiversity, agriculture and cattle breeding, and the thousands of anaphylactic shocks inflicted to people by painful stings every year (with hundreds of deaths). Between the USA and Australia, over US$10 billion are spent yearly on the control of this insect alone. The tiger mosquitoes are vectors of pathogens that cause dengue fever, of the chikungunya virus and of about 30 other viruses. And I could go on.

Most of these nasty creatures are now unable to colonize northern regions of Europe or America, or southern regions of Australia, for example, because they cannot survive cold temperatures. But how will this change? Where and when which species will invade with rising temperatures? What will be the costs in terms of species loss? In terms of agricultural or forestry loss? In terms of diseases to cattle, domestic animals and humans? What will be the death toll if insects that are vectors of malaria can establish in new, highly populated areas?

All these questions, we’ve proposed to study them from a list of 20 of the worst invasive insect species worldwide. And we got selected (ie financed), so brace yourself, we are going to provide some answers. Soon. I just need to hire a couple of postdocs first to do all the work for me.

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I don’t care; I don’t like popcorn anyway

As you have noted with bordering despair anguish, I have not posted anything here over August. This is simply because everyone told me not to ever stop posting, even for summer, in order to build an audience, and I generally don’t like being told what to do. Plus, I had nothing to say and was too busy seeping cocktails in the spa of my new residence.

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But I am not that cruel, and will now put an end to your misery with new, regular, posts. Yeah! So, let’s start by some news on the changes in our beloved Biodiversity Dynamics lab over the summer.

Several people have left our group. James and Ben, both invited professors are now back in their lab, trying to recover from their French experience. They looked sane enough when they left, so if something goes wrong after, it’s not us! Alok and Noelia finished their postdoc and are now, Noelia in Bordeaux, and Alok a bit further, in India. Carmen has not left (although she has left the group web page): having hired an Assistant Prof and an Engineer, and having a PhD student (Amélie) and a postdoc (Fernando) and several interns, she is now setting her own research group. Good luck for this new stage! Cleo has finished her PhD Thesis and is currently doing a postdoc in Australia. Céline has finished her PhD Thesis too and is due for a postdoc in London, but remains in the lab until that postdoc starts. Boris has found an Assistant Professor position in Paris (at the MNHN) and Camille has been selected for a civil service to the sub-Antarctic island research stations: huge congratulations to all four for these major achievements!

We’ll miss them all!

Now, the lab won’t remain empty and new comers are joining the surviving crew to keep it as we like it: strong and warm, like coffee, and vibrant like… well, something that vibrates. After a Master in our group, Pauline and Irene are starting a PhD Thesis here, both with Elsa, while we welcome Olivier as a new postdoc with us.

I’ll miss them all too!

Yes, because I forgot to mention, I have deserted the lab for one year, starting a sabbatical year at the University of California Los Angeles. But I’ll stay connected, and visit them regularly, hopefully, when I miss too much camembert and strikes.

Last bit of news: I got lucky and received two major grants. Meaning that we are going to hire several postdocs quite soon. So stay tuned!

Recent studies have highlighted that Antarctica Glaciers are collapsing unstoppably, adding over 3 meters to sea-level rise (e.g., here and here). A short post then, because, damn, water is rising fast and I must hurry. We’ve all heard a lot about climate change, how it will make things much hotter and how critters will migrate north (and south in the Southern hemisphere). We’ve heard much less about a dramatic secondary effect : sea level rise. And that’s surprising, because it is a certain consequence of climate change, and because it is a very concrete threat for both society and biodiversity.

Our group studied the likely effects of  sea level rise on islands all over the world. And the result is pretty appalling: between 10,000 and 20,000 islands could be totally wiped out of the Earth by the end of the century. Many, many more will be significantly reduced by permanent immersion of a large proportion of their surface. The studies are here and here. Or read this if you want a shorter text.

Of course, the species living there will be at risk of disappearing, unless they can fly (which is rarely the case on islands) and unless they start growing fins. And to make things worst, even on spared islands they can’t move to follow their favourite climate, because their habitat is surrounded by water. So even with dry feet, things will get hot for them. Evolving on that paradisiac island suddenly doesn’t seem such a good idea, hey critter?

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Yes, I mentioned that earlier: we study invasive ants. We do all kind of fun things we them, from models trying to predict where they could be invasive, now or with climate change, to lab experiment trying to see which species are better at finding and monopolising resources. There are a bunch of papers now that we have published on that (and more to come, that I will probably advertise here, so I won’t say too much now), but the point is, they are very interesting, and quite problematic for biodiversity and economics alike.

There are about 20 000 ants species out there (40% of which remaining to be described by science). One percent of these species are exotic, meaning they have been introduced outside their native range, and seem to have been established there. About a tenth of these 200 exotic species are known to be highly invasive. That mean they are mean. And I do mean mean. Not the mean mean, really mean. Ok, I stop. They are highly aggressive and exceedingly efficient. When they invade, they destroy the native entomofauna, starting by the native ant communities, but also affecting plants, other invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and even mammals. Humans are known to be victims of the Red Imported Fire Ant by the thousands in the USA (with hundreds of death – that is more than by sharks). They really affect biodiversity and doing so they disrupt ecosystem functioning and services (like pollination and seed dispersal). And they cause billions of dollars of damage every year to agriculture, forestry, real estate and public health.

Oh, and they also go by scary names, like the fire ant, the electric ant, the crazy ant, the destroyer ant, the ghost ant… And before you ask, yes there are zombie ants and vampire ants as well, only they are not invasive ants. No werewolf ant though. Kinda disappointing.

Anyway, invasive ants are about to take over the planet, and who is working their ass off trying to save the day, in the general ingratitude? To whom will you turn when they try and make you their slave? Biodiversity Dynamics, thank you.

So, to answer the question in the title, we study invasive ants, simply because invasive ants are importants. Import-ants. Get it? Ok ok, I thought that was a good one…

 

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Ever wondered why ant colonies are so big? One talks about millions of individuals in some colonies. And for people working on invasive ants, like us, this thought can be both fascinating and frightening (BTW, we work on invasive ants, because they are importants. Sorry.). Take the Argentine ant for example. It forms “supercolonies” (related colonies) that can encompass tens of thousands of nests over thousands of kilometres. This amounts to perhaps hundreds of millions of tiny, mean brothers-in-arms that will attack and effectively kill almost anything they encounter and that is small and stupid enough to hang around. Sweet little things. We love them. Later on, I’ll tell you how we compare the nastiness of the various invasive ant species, and believe me, Mother Nature had loads of fun – and bursts of creativity – when She created ants.

But for now, how did they manage to evolve such immense social colonies? One answer could come from our study of Allee effects. An Allee effect is a positive relationship between the size of a population and its capacity to persist and grow. In a word, in some species, the more individuals there are, they better they do, often because they help each other in some various ways. So, we studied Allee effects in ants; just because we study all we can about the Allee effect (because we are a bit monomaniac) and because we like ants. We like rhinos too, but that’s less practical in a lab. Oh, and of course because, very surprisingly, nobody ever had the idea (or the madness?) to look into that.

So, we set up large experimental designs to record the survival and reproduction of colonies of various sizes. By various sizes, I mean different number of workers and different numbers of queens. Because, yes, some ant species live with several (sometimes hundreds of) queens in the same nest. And after a few years of hard work, the results were worth it: there are indeed Allee effects in ants; at least the two species we studied. The corresponding paper is here. The more ants, the better they do. And it even gets better: the more queens, the more workers are produced per queen (that’s not that obvious, they could compete for food). And also, the more queens, the better the workers survive (don’t ask me why, I’m supposed to be concise here). And the fun continues: the more workers, the higher the queens productivity! So in fact, each cast (workers and queens) benefit the other cast, so that it creates a mad feedback loop leading to ever growing colonies (that I think can possibly only end in them taking over the world). So this mechanism of Allee effect might have played an important role into making large colonies of eusocial species. Nice no? Oh, come on!

 

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What, no funny image? Yes, this one IS funny too, just watch closer!