Somjee joined the UF Entomology program for his master’s degree, where he began fieldwork on the heliconia bug at the Smithsonian Research Institute. His research aimed to understand mating success in insect systems. It was his first attempt at trying to measure natural selection in the wild.
When he later joined SNRE to pursue a doctoral degree, he built on this research while looking for a method that could give him more detail about the behavior of specific individuals in the wild. A way to track the behaviors of one bug over time.
He had a thought: Could he tag individual insects in the wild and come back to find them the next day?
“First of all, that’s an insane amount of work. And secondly, is it even possible to do that?” he remembers thinking.
In 2015, Somjee proposed a project to test this new idea. He would paint the backs of individual insects with a unique number, and then he would let them go. The next day he would come back and try to find those individuals, paying special attention to the behaviors of each insect as well as physiological factors like body size.
At his field site in Panama, Somjee found a community of insects surrounded by a dense canopy. The plant species they lived on was located in one isolated area.
“It was kind of like an island in the rain forest,” he said.
At this point, he had limited funding and no car to take him to his field site, so he biked there every 24 hours to check for the insects, armed just with a pair of calipers (a measuring tool).
In the end, his hard work paid off. He was able to find individuals over and over again and gain important insights into their social behaviors over time. He was even able to develop social networks for the isolated insect community.
“This was a really unique situation,” Somjee said. “People doing these studies with birds or other larger animals often have to have a huge amount of resources, and technology, and time and budgets to do that study, but here I was a person on a bicycle with calipers and I could get the same type of data.”
After this success, Somjee proposed a bigger version of the project for the next year. This time, he received funding. He returned with a car to drive to the field site and two UF undergrads in tow.