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James Traniello Elected to American Association for the Advancement of Science

CAS biologist studies insect behavior

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What would social insect researcher James Traniello, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology, do if an ant colony built little dirt hills all over his sidewalk? Traniello, who has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for contributions to experimental behavioral ecology through the study of social insects like ants and termites, has admired insects throughout his career and has even collaborated with thousands of them on art works. Perhaps insects aren’t that different from us after all—Traniello says that at least one species has even adapted to eating human junk food.

BU Today: Why did you feel compelled to study social insects?

Traniello: As a senior in college, I enrolled in a class in entomology. The assigned readings included E. O. Wilson’s The Insect Societies, my introduction to insect sociobiology and the most influential book of my undergraduate education. I then entered a master’s program in entomology to better understand insect biology and social insect behavior. In 1975 at Amherst College, coincident with his newly published Sociobiology: the New Synthesis, I heard E. O. Wilson give an invited seminar on social evolution. His talk was deeply inspiring and crystallized my interest in social behavior, leading me to pursue a PhD at Harvard, where Bert Hölldobler, the preeminent authority on communication in ants, and E. O. Wilson were faculty.

Since then, insects have been ideal models for my research on the evolution, ecology, and neurobiology of social behavior, disease resistance and social immunity, and aging in animal societies.

Social insects (primarily ants, bees, wasps, and termites) are compelling models for research in biological science for many reasons. You can often fit an entire society into a Petri dish and record the behavior of each individual and its interactions with nest mates. Insect societies can be experimentally disassembled and reconstructed to explore the adaptive nature of social organization. They serve as the main model for understanding the evolution of altruism. And the brains of ants—although minute—are capable of extraordinary behavior. Today, we have tool kits and instrumentation to study all aspects of their social life.

What do you admire the most about insects?

Insects have seemingly endless diversity in form, and amazing behavior. The same beauty that most people immediately recognize and appreciate in butterflies can also be seen in the evolutionary design across virtually all insect species, and for social insects, in the architecture of their colonies. Their collective intelligence is striking; their societies generate remarkable group actions without centralized control.

Are there aspects of human society that have taken cues from social insects?

Social insects have long been deeply woven into mythology. Termites, for example, are prominent in the ethnoentomology of some African and South American cultures. Elders teach lessons in morality, standing aside a termite mound, and reflect on the parallels of community, solidarity, and selfless traditions in human and insect societies.

Honeybees have been a symbol of industry, and their social biology—featuring a queen and workers—has been used to justify monarchy in England.

And the Bible advises, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; [consider its] ways and be wise.”

Social insects provide model systems for robotics and swarm intelligence, and they influence art. Sculptors make castings of nests, and some recent performance art is based on social insect biology. Several years ago at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, artist Roni Horn exhibited a large nest of Florida harvester ants sandwiched between two planes of glass mounted in a mahogany frame. I was recruited to place the ants, which were sent by a colleague, in the nest. The tunneling patterns generated by workers became artistic expression.

I also once worked with photographer Rosamond Purcell, feeding antique books and prints to Neotropical termite colonies to reduce aged paper to sepia-toned skeletal outlines used to make constructions. With thousands of tiny collaborators, we mused on human excess in a work called Mass Consumption, which was exhibited.

Do insects have individual or collective personalities?

Social insect behavior can be idiosyncratic, and personality can be seen in species, colonies, and individuals. Social insect species vary in activity level, some having high or low tempo, and colonies and workers may show persistent differences in behavior and/or levels of task performance.

“Elites”—workers having unusually high commitment to the completion of a task—have been described in several species. Individuals may be dominant or submissive, which has consequences for reproduction, and in wasps, dominant females are recognized by their distinctive facial markings. Workers can also differ in task specialization; worker size and age can be related to how colonies divide labor.

My former doctoral student Simon Robson and I studied leadership in the organization of cooperative prey retrieval in ants, finding that a single worker was responsible for maintaining group action, and if she was experimentally removed, the group would fail to complete its task. So workers may not be interchangeable group members, as some theories suggest.

What have been some of your favorite aha moments?

Many eureka moments involve finding social insects (especially rare species) in nature or seeing social behaviors in the field or lab that I had previously only known from descriptions in the literature.

I remember fully recognizing the ecological dominance and ecosystem significance of social insects while simultaneously watching an army ant predatory raid of tens of thousands of workers, and meters-long columns of leaf-cutter ants transporting leaf fragments to their nest to cultivate a mutualistic fungus.

Equally indelible in memory are times working with colleagues, students, and postdocs when discovery and understanding converged to elation.

If ants were taking over your sidewalk with little mounds of dirt, would you sweep them away or leave them be?

If you find ants on the sidewalk excavating soil, they’re very likely pavement ants, Tetramorium immigrans, invasive in North America for centuries. Colonies defend territories and battle to defend them. This species also appears to have adapted to eating human junk food. Another “sidewalk ant” is Lasius neoniger, which spatially distribute nest entrances in nonrandom geometric patterns to increase foraging success. So I guess the answer to the question is no, I wouldn’t sweep them away.

Traniello is one of 416 new fellows announced by the AAAS on November 27, 2018. The new fellows will be recognized on February 16, 2019, at the 2019 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., where they will be presented with an official certificate and the AAAS Fellows’ gold and blue rosette pin, the colors of which represent the fields of science and engineering.

Kat J. McAlpine can be reached at katjmcal@bu.edu.

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