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Research in the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior

Social insects, like ants, bees, wasps and termites, live in highly complex societies with sophisticated social behavior, communication and division of labor. Insect societies are socially integrated to such an extent that they are often portrayed as “superorganisms” in which different morphological or behavioral castes have different functions, similar to the different tissues of an organism. The networks of mutually attuned specialists have enabled social insects to evolve to ecological dominance in many terrestrial ecosystems. Most fundamentally, some individuals, the workers, often completely forego egg-laying and dedicate their lives to colony maintenance, while others, the queens, monopolize reproduction. Members of the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior, headed by Dr. Daniel Kronauer, use an integrative approach to understand how natural selection shapes the evolution of insect societies and how social life is regulated at different hierarchical levels: the gene, the individual and the colony.

A major line of investigation in the Kronauer lab addresses the molecular basis of social behavior and division of labor. In social insects, developmental trajectories and individual behavior are highly dynamic and contingent upon the social environment. A major challenge is to understand how the social environment is perceived by an individual, how the social environment interacts with an individual’s genome to govern gene expression, how this affects individual physiology and behavior, and how the altered individual state in turn feeds back into the social environment of the colony. To address these questions, researchers in the Kronauer lab use molecular genetics, neuroscience, experimental manipulations and quantitative behavioral assays.

The Kronauer lab also studies the manifold interactions between ants and other organisms. These interactions range from symbiotic bacteria in the ant gut that are thought to upgrade the ants’ diet, to highly specialized arthropods, so-called myrmecophiles, which live inside ant colonies as mutualists, commensals, or parasites.

Many projects in the Laboratory of Social Evolution and Behavior involve experimentation with live social insects under controlled laboratory conditions, while others have a strong field component. Lab members are conducting fieldwork in the American, African, and Asian tropics, as well as close to home in New York.

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Social insects, like ants, bees, wasps and termites, live in highly complex societies with sophisticated social behavior, communication and division of labor. Insect societies are socially integrated