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EMBL Forum Lectures


Raghavendra Gadagkar

Friday, 27 May 2011, 14:00, Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Raghavendra Gadagkar, Indian Institute of Science

Interrogating an Insect Society



Insect societies consist of one or a small number of reproductives (usually only queens but also kings in the case of termites) and a large number of sterile or nearly sterile workers. While the queens engage in laying eggs, all the tasks required for nest building, acquisition and processing of food and brood care are performed by the workers. How do such societies function in a coordinated and efficient manner? What are the rules that individuals follow? How are these rules made and enforced? These questions are of obvious interest to us as fellow social animals but how do we interrogate an insect society and decipher its “language”? In this lecture I will describe research designed to seek answers from insect societies to questions of obvious interest to us. I have chosen the Indian paper wasp Ropalidia marginata for this purpose, a species that is abundantly distributed in peninsular India and that serves as an excellent model system. An important feature of this species is that queens and workers are morphologically identical and physiologically nearly so. How does an individual become a queen? How does the queen suppress worker reproduction? How does the queen regulate the non-reproductive activities of the workers? What is the function of aggression shown by different individuals? How and when is the queen’s heir decided? I will show how such questions can indeed be investigated and will emphasize the need for a whole range of different techniques of "interrogation".


Raghavendra Gadagkar is Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. During the past 25 years he has established an active school of research in the area of Animal Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution in India. The origin and evolution of cooperation in animals, especially in social insects, such as ants, bees and wasps, is a major goal of his research. By identifying and utilizing crucial elements in India’s biodiversity, he has added a special Indian flavour to his research.

He has published over 200 research papers and articles and two books - Survival Strategies Harvard University Press, USA, 1997) and The Social Biology of Ropalidia (Harvard University Press, USA, 2001). He is an elected fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World and Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. As the founder chair of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Gadagkar has initiated a new experiment that endeavours to engage some of the best practitioners of different disciplines in the human sciences, such as philosophy, sociology, economics, law, literature, poetry, art, music, cinema etc. and aims to forge meaningful interaction between the natural and human sciences with special focus on understanding the diverse research methodologies of different disciplines and create opportunities to rethink the foundations of our own disciplines.