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evolutionAry traNsitions: Chemical Ecology of Parasitic Societies

Final Report Summary - ANCEPS (evolutionAry traNsitions: Chemical Ecology of Parasitic Societies)

Project results and outcomes

One of the main outcomes of my Marie Curie fellowship was a 15 ECTS graduate course in Panama. It registered as an MSc and PhD curriculum at the University of Copenhagen. Twelve graduate students took the course (11 nationalities) and all were successful. We received very positive comments from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute about the significant research component in our course, which compared very positively with, but was unique to, the current undergraduate courses offered by Princeton and McGill in the same locality. Indeed, several of the graduate student projects have produced publishable results which are currently being written up. Partly because of the extra help from these highly qualified graduate students, I achieved a major and unexpected breakthrough in my research. We were able to show that one of the most advanced 'guest ant' Megalomyrmex parasites had in fact become a protector of its host colonies against other marauding predator ants, which also use chemical weaponry to usurp host colonies. It turned out that the permanent Megalomyrmex symmetochus guest ants function as ant mercenaries, which are expensive for the host ant colony but protect the ants against greater harm from other natural enemies. A phenomenon such as this has never before been described for ants. Therefore I directed my focus in the final nine months of my fellowship to acquiring enough behavioural data to turn this key result into a high-profile paper.

I also finished identifying volatile and non-volatile communication compounds for 11 Megalomyrmex and 12 host species, as planned; this work will generate several publications.

The Symbiosis Reading Group I organised in my first year continues to gain popularity among students and staff and has strengthened departmental collaborations. I also familiarised students of Professor Peeters from the Laboratoire d'Ecologie Université, Copenhagen, and the Center for Social Evolution’s director Professor Boomsma with my Costa Rican field site, which gave them important new insights into their work on Acromyrmex fungus-growing ants and queen reproductive strategies.

Finally, I attended a series of European conferences to disseminate my work, one of which was by invitation to present my Marie Curie Fellowship experience at the European Union's booth and during a session at the European Association for International Education.

To summarise, this Marie Curie grant has allowed me to advance my research programme in co-evolutionary phylogenetics, symbiotic interactions and alkaloid evolution; advise, teach and examine students in an academic system unlike any I have experienced before; become trained in the previously unfamiliar field of chemical ecology; and have a positive impact on the local students through outreach and researchers in Denmark, Panama and Costa Rica.

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