News & Announcements

Del Toro awarded NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship

OEB doctoral candidate Israel Del Toro has been awarded a 3-year NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to start in September 2014. Del Toro will study the impacts of climate change on biodiversity in the sky-islands of southwestern US and Northern Mexico. He will also look at the political ecology of the border region between the US and Mexico and how different management strategies impact the biodiversity of keystone arthropods. Del Toro will split his time between the University of Copenhagen's Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate (CMEC), New Mexico State University (NMSU) and the Jornada Long Term Ecological Research Station.

March Science Café:  Dietary Habits of Black Holes

March's Science Café is on Monday, March 3rd at 6:00 pm at Esselon Cafe. Dr. Daniel Wang from the UMass Astronomy Department will talk about his work with black holes. He tells us there is a super massive one at the center of our galaxy, and it doesn’t suck. Join us for a fun discussion!

The Science Café series is organized by graduate students in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) program at UMass. We strive to bring engaging conversations about science to broad audiences by hosting Science Café events throughout the year.

Cox has success at SICB meeting

Suzanne Cox, PhD Student in the lab of Gary Gillis, had a successful time at this January's Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology annual meeting. Not only was she runner up in this year's Best Student Paper contest in the Division of Comparative Biomechanics, she also received the best Oral Presentation Award by The Crustacean Society. Congratulations!

February Science Café: Mortal Combat

Black throated blue warbler

Mortal Combat: Bird Song and Territory Defense

This month's Science Café will be Monday, February 3rd at 6:00 pm at Eseslon Cafe. Dave Hof, a PhD candidate in OEB, will talk about his work investigating song function and aggression in songbirds, and how they use song to settle conflicts.

For information on the spring Science Café series, see or click on the Science Cafe mug.

Lin's work on mole locomotion featured in NY Times


Yi-Fen Lin, a doctoral candidate in Betsy Dumont's lab, reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology that moles seem to swim through the earth, and that the stroke they use allows them to pack a lot of power behind their shovel-like paws. Lin has collaborated with researchers at Brown University to record x-ray videos of moles tunneling. Her work is featured in Uncovering the Secrets of Mole Motion, New York Times.

Cleared: The Art of Science

Butterfly Ray

The Seattle Aquarium is currently hosting Cleared: The Art of Science, an exhibit of photographs by Adam Summers. The show features mesmerizing images of fish that have been specially treated to make the stained skeletal tissues visible through the skin and flesh. The technique, developed by Dr. Summers, uses dyes, hydrogen peroxide, a digestive enzyme and glycerin to make the flesh seem to disappear. Adam Summers was one of OEB's first PhD recipients, receiving his degree in 1999. He is currently a Professor at the University of Washington and Associate Director at Friday Harbor Laboratories. Between 2000 and 2008, he wrote columns on biomechanics for Natural History magazine.

2014 Darwin Fellow Search

A search for a new Darwin Fellow is underway. The Darwin Fellow Program, founded in 1995, brings promising young postdoctoral researchers to UMASS Amherst. The two-year position provides a unique combination of teaching and research responsibilities and is excellent preparation for academic positions. The fellowship program embodies the interdepartmental collaboration that characterizes the OEB Graduate Program. Darwin Fellows are active participants in OEB, acting as mentors to graduate students, conducting research, leading seminar courses, and teaching courses in the Biology Department. The position will start in August 2014. Details on the position and the application procedure can be found here.

Search update: four candidates have been invited for interviews in February.

Goodwin wins Best Presentation award at LSGRS

Sarah Goodwin won the Best Presentation award for her talk "Shift of song frequencies in response to masking tones" at this year's Life Sciences Graduate Research Symposium. OEB was well represented, with five students giving talks. Congratulations!


Melissotarsus weissi and diaspidids

Old McDonald Was an Ant?

It’s a common sight… ants and aphids crawling around together on rose stems. Sometimes they appear to be interacting, but it’s not always clear what’s going on. Even if you haven’t seen it yourself, perhaps you know the story. Many species of ants and aphids have mutually beneficial relationships. The ants act as bodyguards for the aphids, protecting them from predators, and the aphids reward the ants with a honeydew that they produce from plant sap. This mutualistic relationship centered around food, called trophobiosis, also occurs between ants and other insects, such as some butterfly larvae, treehoppers, and scale insects, though the reward isn’t always honeydew. But what’s occurring when ants are providing protection for species that don’t provide honeydew? What’s the reward? Scott Schneider, joint OEB/Entomology PhD Candidate at UMass Amherst, believes the reward for protection from ants is sometimes something much more macabre.

Schneider studies the interactions between the Afrotropical ant genus Melissotarsus and the armoured scale insects from the family Diaspididae.  Schneider asks, “Is it crazy to think that the diaspidids (scale insects) themselves could be the food source?” This hypothesis was originally proposed almost forty years ago, but has been a source of contention ever since. While considered a plausible explanation by some entomologists, for others, well… “The idea of meat farming is a little too out there for them”, explains Schneider. However, he and his colleagues have recently provided new evidence to support this hypothesis in a recent edition of Systematic Entomology.

To try to understand more about this unique relationship, Schneider and his colleague Jan Giliomee from Stellenbosch University collected branches from trees in South Africa infested with colonies of the ant M. emeryi and the diaspidid Morganella conspicua and brought them back to a local field site for observation. They removed the bark from these branches to expose the tunnels where the ants and diaspidids live so they could observe their interactions. They also removed ants from some of the branches to let the diaspidids sit undisturbed for several weeks to see if the diaspidids were producing honeydew or wax for the ants to feed on.

They found nothing. No honeydew, no wax. What they did discover, however, were two unusual behaviors. One of the behaviors, in particular, got Schneider’s attention; a worker ant grabbed a diaspidid and pulled it until the diaspidid’s mouthparts were free from the wood, and then the ant set the diaspidid down. Without legs, the diaspidid had no way to reposition itself. This was a death sentence. Unfortunately, the ant was then attacked by another invading ant colony, so the ultimate fate of the diaspidid is still unknown. But Schneider wonders, “Was this a cultivating behavior?” Unfortunately, because the natural behavior of these insects is so difficult to study, it may be awhile before the mystery is solved.  But the idea of an insect using another almost as “domestic cattle” is certainly intriguing; a coevolutionary relationship where the protection of many is paid for by the sacrifice of a few to sate the hunger of the protectors. Hollywood couldn’t imagine anything more fantastic.

Schneider, S. A., Giliomee, J. H., Dooley, J. W., & Normark, B. B. (2013). Mutualism between armoured scale insects and ants: new species and observations on a unique trophobiosis (Hemiptera: Diaspididae; Hymenoptera: Formicidae: MelissotarsusEmery). Systematic Entomology, 38(4), 805–817. doi:10.1111/syen.12033

Casey Gilman

Five OEB students presenting at Life Sciences Graduate Research Symposium

Sarah Goodwin, Caroline Curtis, Melissa Ha, Dina Navon and Skye Long will all be presenting their research at the 3rd annual Life Science Graduate Research Symposium. The all day symposium, featuring a total of 18 presentations by students in nine UMass grad programs, takes place in Campus Center 101 on Friday, November 22. Following the talks, a poster session and reception takes place on the 11th Floor of the Campus Center from 4:30 - 6:00 p.m. Awards for best talk and best poster will be presented at the end of the reception. Symposium details can be found here.