Dr Seirian Sumner
Dr Seirian Sumner has now left ZSL.
- 2004-2012: Research Fellow, Institute of Zoology, London.
- 2002-2004: Research Fellow in Molecular Evolution, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama.
- 2000-2002: Postdoctoral researcher, Population Ecology Dept., Copenhagen University.
- 1996-1999: BBSRC Ph.D studentship, Dept. of Biology, University College London.
- 1993-1996: BSc (Hons). Zoology, University College London.
My research is concerned with the evolution of sociality. I am particularly interested in studying the evolution of simple (primitive) societies, as a key to understanding more complex eusocial systems. Much of my work involves field study in combination with techniques in molecular biology (e.g. microsatellites and gene expression analysis) to examine the evolution of sociality in eusocial insect societies (Hymenoptera).
Genetic basis of queen and worker castes
My recent research has been concerned with determining the genetic basis of behavioural castes in Polistine wasps (collaborators: Bill Jordan, Zief Pereboom at IoZ and Mary Jane West-Eberhard at the Smithsonian Institute (STRI)). We have identified 40 differentially expressed genes in reproductive (queen) and non-reproductive (worker) adult colony members of Polistes canadensis, a tropical paper wasp that lacks morphological castes and exhibits behavioural plasticity between queen and worker roles. Future work aims to integrate manipulation experiments in the field with genomic techniques with a view to mapping changes in gene expression associated with behaviour.
Conflicts over reproduction
I am also interested in how primitively eusocial colonies resolve conflicts over reproduction. My earlier work involved testing reproductive skew models in colonies of primitively eusocial hover wasps (Stenogastrinae) (chief collaborator: Jeremy Field, University College London). These wasps exhibit an unequal division of reproductive labour, but lack morphological queen and worker castes. I am currently studying reproductive partitioning in the tropical paper wasp, Polistes canadensis (collaborator: Dr Daniele Fanelli, University of Florence, Italy).
Evolution of social parasitism
Another intriguing phenomenon found amongst the social insects is the evolution of social parasitism. I have been studying this in the social parasite Acromyrmex insinuator, a permanent social parasite of colonies of the leafcutting ant Acromyrmex echinatior (chief collaborator: Jacobus (Koos) Boomsma, University of Copenhagen). Our recent phylogenetic work shows that this social parasite has only recently diverged from its host's lineage, thus we expect parasite and host to share many biological traits. Using microsatellite markers we have been comparing the mating and breeding systems of the host and parasite with a view to examining how selection acts on evolutionary young social parasites. A. insinuator produces a worker caste, which is a rare phenomenon for a permanent social parasite. We have explored the possible adaptive role of these workers through comparative in-vivo manipulation experiments and through life-history data gathered from over 10 years of field study.
Radio-tagging social insects
Most recently, I‘ve been piloting RFID (radio frequency identification tags) technology on paper wasps to study nest drifting. A tagged wasp can be seen at the bottom of this photo.
I am also interested in improving ways in which scientists communicate their work to the general public. I’ve been exploring this using digital video. My videos include a film on stingless bees in the Yucatan, Mexico, ‘Of Hives and Hombres’ (filmed at the University of Yucatan, Mexico in association with the European Community Social Insect Network)) and ‘A Short Film About Ants’, which documents research in progress on leaf-cutting ants (filmed at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama in association with the European Community Social Insect Network). VHS PAL copies of these films are available for non-profit making teaching purposes at cost price. Please email me for a copy.
Sumner, S. and Keller, L. (2008) Social evolution: reincarnation, free-riding and inexplicable modes of reproduction. Current Biology 18(5): R206-R207. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.01.004
Sumner, S., Lucas, E., Barker, J. and Isaac, N.J.B. (2007) Radio-tagging technology reveals extreme nest drifting in a eusocial insect. Current Biology 17: 140-145.
Sumner, S. (2006) Determining the molecular basis of sociality in insects: progress, prospects and potential in sociogenomics. Annales Zoologici Fennici 43(5-6): 423-442.
Sumner. S, Pereboom, J.J.M., Jordan W.C. (2006). Differential gene expression and phenotypic plasticity in behavioural castes of the primitively eusocial wasp, Polistes canadensis. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 273, 19-26.
Pereboom, J. J. M., Jordan, W. C., Sumner. S, Hammond, R. L. & Bourke, A. F. G. (2005). Differential gene expression in queen-worker caste determination in bumble-bees. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 272(1568), 1145-1152.
Sumner, S., Hughes, W.O.H., Pedersen, J., Boomsma, J.J. (2004). Social parasite queens abandon multiple mating. Nature 428, 35-36.
Sumner, S., Aanen, D.K., Delabie, J., Boomsma, J.J. (2004). The evolution of social parasitism in leaf-cutting ants. Insectes Sociaux 51, 37-42.
Sumner, S, Nash, D.R., Boomsma J.J. (2003). The adaptive significance of inquiline workers. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 270, 1315-1322.
Sumner, S, Hughes, W.O.H., Boomsma, J.J. (2003). Evidence for differential selection and potential adaptive evolution in an inquiline social parasite. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology 54(3), 256-263.
Hughes, W.O.H, Sumner, S., Van Borm, S., Boomsma, J.J. (2003). Worker caste polymorphism has a genetic basis in a leaf-cutting ant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA 100, 9394-9397.
Sumner S., Casiraghi M., Field J. (2002). High reproductive skew in tropical hover wasps. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 269(1487), 179-185.
Sumner S., Field J. (2001). Primer note: Highly variable microsatellites in the facultatively eusocial hover wasp Liostenogaster flavolineata and cross species amplification. Molecular Ecology Notes 1(4), 299-302.
Field J., Shreeves G., Sumner S., Casiraghi M. (2000). Insurance-based advantages to helpers in a tropical hover wasp. Nature 404; 869-871.
Field J., Shreeves G., Sumner S. (1999). Group size, queuing and helping decisions in facultatively eusocial hover wasps. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 45: 378-385.
Field J., Foster W., Shreeves G., Sumner S. (1998). Ecological constraints on independent nesting in facultative eusocial hover wasps. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B 265: 973 - 977.