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.
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.
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.
We are recently back from a sampling trip to the Pacific coasts of Colombia and Panama. Thanks to our Colombian collaborators, Camilo Salazar, Mauricio Linares and Carolina Pardo-Diaz for organising access to some amazing and remote locations. We are interested in the Heliconius erato and H. melpomene butterflies from this region because they have intermediate levels of iridescence that are between the bright blue that we find in Ecuador and the mat black found further north and east in Panama. The variation found across the region gives the possibility of finding genes that control that variation.
Sheffield is hosting the annual Population Genetics Group meeting, which starts today! As part of this we are running and outreach event where eight speakers will give 5 minute presentations of their work aimed at a public audience. The event is this evening (Tuesday 6th Jan) at 9pm in the Student’s Union Building, Inox discovery room 3.
The exhibit that we presented at the Royal Society in the summer is currently up in the foyer of the Alfred Denny building, pop in to make your own butterfly or see how well you do as a bird.