Brackenridge Field Laboratory

The Science Under the Stars lecture series celebrated Valentine’s Day with a presentation on animal courtship at UT’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory on Thursday.

Victoria Huang, an ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student, presented this month’s Science Under the Stars lecture, “Sex In The Animal Kingdom.”

Huang discussed dozens of animals in her speech, including birds, fish, amphibians, arachnids, reptiles and mammals. Two examples provided were monogamous bald eagles who choose mates for life, and hermaphroditic clown fish who develop from males into females over time.

Different kinds of sexual behavior were also covered, including courtship, sex-role reversal, mating and homosexuality. Huang said some species of animals do not perceive homosexuality as a gender identity, but rather they may engage in it to acquire a stable mate to care for growing young.

Additionally, Huang spoke about animals other than humans who pursue sex for pleasure, including dolphins and bonobos. 

Huang’s studies focus on the sexuality of a specific species of gecko, whose gender and brain chemistry are determined by the temperature of their incubation prior to birth. Huang said climate change could possibly affect the sex ratio in gecko populations in the future.

“I’m looking at variation within males and how hormones are involved in their development and behavior,” Huang said.

Nichole Bennett, an ecology, evolution and animal behavior graduate student studying climate change biology, helped Huang prepare for her public presentation. Bennett gave her own Science Under The Stars lecture in April 2011 titled “Sex, Bugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll: Insects In Music.” 

“My job is to find speakers and help speakers turn their ideas into a public outreach talk,” Bennett said.

According to Huang, she was an obvious choice for this month’s Science Under The Stars given the focus of her studies.

Advertising graduate student Sarah Weinstein attended the lecture and previous Science Under the Stars events.

“I’ve been to these talks before, and [Huang’s] was one of the standout talks,” Weinstein said.

Published on February 15, 2013 as "Lecture explores animal courtship". 

UT biologists are developing a method to reduce the prevalence of invasive fire ants by introducing their natural enemies — parasitic flies that turn them into zombie-like ants.

According to University’s Fire Ant Project website, specific species of small insects, known as phorid flies, lay an egg in the thoraxes of invasive fire ants. A larva hatches out of the egg and moves into the ant’s head. The ant wanders away from the nest, where it dies and its head falls off. The phorid fly matures in the cavity that formerly contained the ant’s jaw muscles and brain.

Lawrence E. Gilbert, director of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory and leader of the research, said the flies proved to be ecologically safe. A map on UT’s Fire Ant Project website shows the extent of the fly’s range, which now encompasses all of Central Texas since the introduction of the first non-native ant-decapitating species in 2002.

Both insects are native to South America, but the ants were brought to the United States accidentally and without their parasitic predators, Gilbert said.

“Another researcher several years ago found that phorid flies can prevent ants from dominating,” he said. “The flies will not eradicate invasive fire ants [in Texas] but they can help prevent them from being a major pest. That’s an important issue in Texas where fire ants cost the economy of Texas $1 billion per year.”

There is a native species of fire ant, but it contends with native predators and so it does not run amuck, said research associate Rob Plowes.

“Native Texas fire ants are seldom considered pests because they are in the presence of their natural enemies including eight species of phorid flies,” he said.

Gilbert said his research into using phorid flies to control invasive fire ants began after he took over the Brackenridge Field Laboratory in 1980. At that time, he was pleased with the diverse fauna, including more than 50 species of native ants, he said.

“A major selling point to researchers that were coming to work [at the field lab] was ‘Hey, look at these fantastic ants,’” Gilbert said.

A year later, invasive fire ants moved in, established a few colonies and took over, he said.

“They dramatically reduced the populations of other native arthropods and affected ground nesting vertebrates, like quail,” Gilbert said. “Obviously we can’t use broad spectrum pesticides because we want to preserve the ecological integrity.”

Gilbert said he began investigating whether non-native phorid flies could provide a solution without damaging the native ecology.

“We spent the first decade researching whether the flies would choose between their natural hosts and native fire ants,” he said. “We put them in situations of extreme choice. Even if [the phorid flies] are desperate, there is no evidence that they will switch to preying on the native fire ants.”