Welcome to the project page! Here you will find an update page for each project we are working on.
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Colour polymorphic snail reveals the evolution of supergene architecture
The three researchers from Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (Leiden, The Netherlands) have been awarded a grant
from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for the project “Evolution of supergenes and the
genetic basis of snail colour polymorphism”. Dr. Suzanne Saenko, Dr. Dick Groenenberg, and Prof. Menno
Schilthuizen will study the the supergene that controls shell colour polymorphism in a classical
model for ecological genetics and climate-induced evolutionary change, the land snail Cepaea nemoralis.
A supergene is a cluster of several genes, each of which affects a different morphological or behavioural trait.
Because of tight physical linkage within supergenes multiple phenotypic characters are inherited as a single locus.
Supergenes are thought to be crucial for the maintenance of highly discrete adaptive phenotypes which can
eventually lead to reproductive isolation and speciation. Multiple complex polymorphisms are presumably
controlled by supergenes, but the molecular evidence for this phenomenon is still scarce and the emergence of
such genetic architecture is surprisingly poorly understood. To help fill this scientific gap, the researchers will
sequence and assemble the genome of C. nemoralis, identify the individual components of its supergene through
linkage mapping, and investigate their role in shell coloration through studies of gene expression and function.
Information about the progress will be posted on our website regularly.
The national color of the Netherlands aka Holland is orange. As I’m Dutch and work on a beetle that is partly orange, I cannot help it but try to Dutchify the this beetle.
The term Dutchify means:
“To render more Dutch (see wiktionary).”
Take a look at the beetle we are talking about, the burying beetle (Nicrophorus vespilloides).
Black and orange. But what if we would be able to make it more orange? Can we Dutchify it? First let us think, why do they have orange at all? In general bright colors in animals can be considered to signal that it is either dangerous, poisonous or simply distasteful (no link to be drawn with the Dutch habit of using orange). Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no data exists that shows why beetles would need to be orange. It at least seems to be a terrible choice if they are trying to hide (camouflage). So let us see whether it would be possible to select for either black or orange beetles. Is there variation?
Clearly, there is variation! Not only does the size vary (pronotum size is often used as indicator of size), but also the percentage of the elytra that is orange varies greatly. This variation makes it possible that we can select for more orange beetles. So in this project I try to 1) select beetles that are either very black or very orange and 2) show a function of the orange color in these beetles.
Burying beetle breeding
These beetles use dead mouse carcasses (or other small vertebrates) to raise their young. They prepare the carcass by removing the gut, applying antimicrobial secretions and making an entrance for their young. The female lays her eggs in the soil surrounding the mouse and after they hatch, the female and male will care for their offspring together. Well, the male might leave as soon as he has the chance and the female might eat some larvae if she feels she has too many mouths to feed, but beyond that they are great parents compared to other insects. Check the movie below to see how a female beetle takes care of her young in the breeding chamber.
Dutchifying the beetles
To Dutchify the beetles, we first need to know whether coloration is heritable, in other words, does the color pattern of beetles depend on the color pattern of their parents? To check how similar burying beetle children are to their parents, I photographed and weighed 115 beetles. From these beetles I selected a subset to setup a variety of broods. Large parents, small parents, orange parents, black parents and some random chosen parents together. I also photographed and weighed the offspring (F0). This way, I can relate phenotypes of the parents like size, weight or color pattern to the same phenotypes in the offspring. You will find the results from this in the updates.
From these F0 beetles (the offspring) I choose the most orange and most black individuals to setup a new generation (F1). These beetles have been photographed and analyzed and the most orange and most black individuals will be used to setup generation F2. By continuing this we will get both more black and more orange beetles. Read the updates of this project to see how it is going.
3D printed beetle to test function
With the selected beetles we would know whether it is heritable. But that doesn’t tell us whether it has any function. Personal communication with a colleague indicated that night active species tend to be blacker and day active species more orange. So might the orange coloration prevent the beetle from being eaten by for example birds? To test this we could try to provide birds with an orange and a black beetle and see which they choose. However, we couldn’t possibly know whether color would be the only difference between the beetles we choose. Maybe orange beetle smell more and it is this smell that repels predators, not the orange by itself. To prevent these ‘confounding factors’ I contacted Kimberly Falk, who is great in making 3D models. She designs 3D jewelry inspired by science and nature (www.ontogenie.de) and was so kind to design a 3D burying beetle for us to test our hypothesis (be sure to check out her site!). She did not only design a 3D burying beetle, she even made the beetle with replaceable elytra (wings) so we can give them any color of elytra we want! Check the model she made!
By using 3D printed beetles with differently colored wings we can check whether color (specifically orange but we might check other ones too) is repellent to predators. Check the updates to see how this is going.
Not all eggs develop at the same speed. However, all eggs have a limited amount of energy which they can spend.
Will they develop fast at the cost of developing protection for themselves or will they develop slow but be well protected against outside forces?
Read more here in the project ‘Fast eggs / Slow eggs’.
Parasitic wasps are fascinating. Edwin Brosens catalogues the species of parasitic wasps occuring in a natural reserve in Belgium using photography.
Check his amazing pictures and the story behind it here.