Mapping the social lives of insects Ummat SOMJEE Studies the social networks of the Heliconia Bug

By Hannah O. Brown

As far back as he can remember, Ummat Somjee has been fascinated with animals.

“I would be constantly playing with insects, bringing snakes home to my parents’ horror,” he remembers of his childhood.

Somjee is a SNRE doctoral student who will be graduating in Fall 2018 to take a competitive postdoctoral fellowship with Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

“I really had this deep passion for trying to understand animal behavior. It was kind of obsessive. I was interested in everything.”

Somjee grew up traveling in Kenya alongside his father, who studied tribes in remote places of the country as a cultural anthropologist. In those early years, he had the opportunity to learn about both the diversity of animal life and the diversity of cultures in Kenya—a time that Somjee believes had a major influence on him.

Over the years, Somjee studied many different species: from hippos to puffins to rattlesnakes.

“I really had this deep passion for trying to understand animal behavior,” he said. “It was kind of obsessive. I was interested in everything.”

As an undergraduate student at Simon Frazer University in British Columbia, Somjee began to sharpen his focus with a research project looking at parasitoid wasps. During this time, he came to the realization that insect communities could serve as a model system to better understand ecological patterns and processes on larger spatial scales.

“I realized that these insects provided this incredible opportunity to ask some broad evolutionary questions that were just really really difficult to test in these larger organisms, but they were equally applicable to these smaller organisms,” he said.

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.

Somjee followed the social patterns of the insects he studied. In this social network analysis map, males are marked as blue and females are red. Somjee found that small males showed more shifts in their social behaviors than large males.

He also expanded the scope of his questions to energetics. He looked at the energetic cost of hind-leg development in males—who have much larger hind legs than females of the same species. He asked how metabolically expensive is the tissue in those legs? And what does it require just to maintain the legs as compared to the rest of the body?

Though Somjee’s focus is animal behavior, his approach is interdisciplinary. He uses theory and methods from physiology, biology and energetics in his research, and he says this helps him address complex questions in a creative way.

“Animal behavior is such a complex thing to get around that we need to pull theories and ideas from these different disciplines to understand what is going on,” he said. “That is the only way we can get some idea of what factors may be shaping these behaviors that are so diverse.”

Christine Miller, UF Professor of Entomology and Somjee’s advisor, said that SNRE was the perfect match for Somjee because it helped him synthesize information from multiple fields.

“It has been such fun to witness Ummat’s progress as a scientist and thinker these past years,” Miller said. “Ummat has an infectious curiosity about the world, one that is not limited to a discipline.”

Somjee said that part of his decision to join SNRE was for the opportunity to discuss the social context in which research is conducted. In his own career, he envisions a scientific future where field programs include many different kinds of people in the areas where he works.

“I think there is a lot of value to be gained from incorporating the different perspectives of people and different ways of thinking into the social fabric of what science is,” he said.

Somjee worked to do this during his research in Panama by recruiting volunteers from the local university to help with his project.

“Over the years, I have been able to mentor them,” he said. “A few of them have gone on and started Ph.D. programs. It’s rewarding for me."

Miller said that Somjee has a fresh and integrative perspective toward research that is inspiring and full of potential.

“I believe Ummat is just getting started, and it will be great to see what he discovers over the course of his career,” she said.

Somjee has accepted a prestigious three-year postdoctoral position through the Smithsonian Institute called the Earl S. Tupper Fellowship, where he will pursue a project looking at energetics and social networks. This particular fellowship is considered the most prestigious postdoc offered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

“It’s something like complete freedom to pursue intellectual curiosity,” Somjee said. “That’s a dream.”

Created By
Hannah Brown


Photos and video from Ummat Somjee, Chris Johns & Wikimedia Commons

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