Symbioses and Social Systems

The intricate workings within a colony of social insects or the close collaboration between individuals of two species—like corals and their zooxanthellae— seemingly run contrary to a world of "nature red in tooth and claw," where organisms compete by any means necessary. One way to compete is to enter into alliances and cooperate with other organisms, of the same or different species, seeking mutual aid. The study of biological cooperation and social evolution is a prominent theme of STRI research ever since pioneer entomologists like William Wheeler and Phil Rau began investigating the social life of insects on Barro Colorado Island. Today these studies continue, involving taxa ranging from bees to shrimp, and from birds to primates, with special attention given to the conflict between social competition and cooperation.

Research on symbiosis at STRI centers on the importance of mutualisms, including relationships between figs and their pollinating fig wasps, corals and zooxanthaellae, plants and their fungal symbionts, and farming ants and their fungi. The spectacular leaf-cutting ants and their relatives, for example, allow STRI researchers to study the causes and consequences of within-species cooperation, and how social evolution is shaped by between-species cooperation between ants and their fungal mutualists. STRI fellows and associates are using farming ants to better understand the evolution of disease, and to find countermeasures to minimize the effects of pathogens and parasites.

Staff scientists researching Symbioses and Social Systems