We are just back from another short sampling trip in Colombia. This time we were near the town of Bahía Solano, between our previously furthest north sampling location in Colombia and our furthest south location in Panama. Emma’s analysis of the butterflies we collected last time suggests that that is a sharp transition from blue to black wing colour around the border between Colombia and Panama, so getting samples from this region could be key to working out where this transition happens and how sharp it is, as well as finding genes that are associated with the colour.
There are no roads in this area so we did a lot of travelling up and down the coast in a small motor boat. All the logistics were again organised by Carolina and Camilo from the Universidad del Rosario, along with local guides, so we are hugely grateful to them!
We are going to be hosting a meeting of Heliconius biologists in Sheffield on the 13th and 14th of June. More information to follow…
Happy new year everyone!
We were at the annual Population Genetics Group meeting in Edinburgh in December. Congratulations to Emma for winning the prize for best student poster!
We will be among the exhibits and demonstrations after the APS Christmas lecture on the 10th of December with our exhibit that we had up in the Winter Gardens in March.
At the weekend we visited the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France with Andrew Parnell and other collaborators from Physics and Chemistry. The location was more spectacular than I had imagined, in a valley with towering mountains on either side. We had 3 days of “beam time” and made full use of the time, keeping measurements running 24hrs a day for those 3 days (Emma bravely volunteered to be on the night shift). We were measuring the butterflies that we collected in Colombia and Panama in January, using small angle x-ray scattering to measure the scale structure variation. This is far out of my field of expertise so being able to work with colleagues in other disciplines is great. This should (once the data is analysed) tell us how the scale structures vary in order to produce the variation in iridescence that we see in the wild. We can then link this up to genetic differences between the butterflies (this is where our expertise comes in) to find out how structural colours can be controlled genetically and developmentally in biological systems.
Melanie Brien has just started as a PhD student in the lab. She was previously out in Ecuador helping with the crosses at Mashpi, so it’s great to have her back!
There are also two undergrads joining the lab, Amruta, who is going to be helping out in the lab and with the butterflies, and Adam, who will be doing his 4th year project with us.
James Bradford, a 3rd year physics undergraduate, has joined our lab for 10 weeks over the summer, on a NERC research experience placement, to help with developing techniques for quantifying variation in iridescent colour in our butterflies.
We are coming to the end of what has been a very fruitful collaboration with the Mashpi Reserve and Lodge in Ecuador. We have been conducting crosses between the local iridescent races of butterflies H. erato and H. melpomene and non-iridescent races. We now have big, second-generation broods from these crosses and can clearly see that there is a lot of variation in iridescent colour. We now begin the huge task of measuring and quantifying this variation and relating it to variation in the genome to find the genes responsible. However, none of this would have been possible without the hard work of our collaborators in Ecuador. In particular, Darwin Chala, who is local to Mashpi and has been hugely successful in running the crosses for the past six months, under the supervision of local scientist Carlos Morochz (Carlos and Darwin, that has to be a good omen!) and Patricio Salazar from the Universidad Indoamérica.
I hope they have got as much out of it as we have. Certainly, our research seems to have enhanced the experience of visitors to the lodge and the staff also seemed to gain a deeper appreciation of their amazing and unique local environment, which can generate things as splendid and intricate is iridescent structural colours. I hope that this will be the first project of many that we will work on together.
Darwin Chala in the breeding facility
Last week I was excited to be invited to a symposium on iridescence organised by the Rank Prize Fund. There were 31 scientists present, spanning everything from physics and engineering to behavioural ecology. It was nice to see our research placed in this broader context and also right in the middle of this spectrum, linking the ecology and evolution to functional questions about how iridescent colours are made. Some of the work most similar to ours in this respect is being done in plants by Beverly Glover’s group in Cambridge and Heather Whitney’s group in Bristol. Talk highlights for me came from Heather and Trevor Wardill, who showed that both plants and squid respectively can dynamically change their iridescence by moving sub-cellular organelles (iridoplasts in the case of plants and iridophores in the case of squid). In both cases, how and why they do this is still a bit of a mystery.
The location of the meeting was also superb, Grasmere in the Lake District, and the weather even held up for us enough to go for a short walk up the hill behind the hotel.
On the 25th and 26th of March we are going to be displaying some of our work and our live butterflies in the Sheffield Winter Garden. Come along to escape the wintery weather and find out about tropical butterflies and their colours! We will be on-hand to explain what we do and why we think butterflies and their colours are interesting.