I am a scientist interested in how animals find their way around the world. For many animals, navigation is of prime importance in their lives, as they need to find resources and regularly return to the home base, their nest or burrow. Due to their morphological and ecological diversity, ants are a particularly interesting group of animals to investigate, although many of the problems faced by ants will be faced by other organisms too. I am particularly interested in unravelling the complexities of navigational behaviours in the natural environment, where animals have evolved to function efficiently, and where the animal is part of a functioning ecosystem. However, a full understanding of animal behaviour also requires a functional understanding of the sensory systems and underlying cognitive processes. Putting all these different pieces together will provide us with a better picture of how animals perceive the world, and how they manage to function within it.
I am currently part of the Insect Biodiversity and Biogeography Lab of Dr. Benoit Guénard at the University of Hong Kong. Despite its heavy urbanisation, the city of Hong Kong is host to many interesting species of tropical ants. I am probing the navigational skills of some of these.
Previously, my research has taken me to Australia, where I worked for several years in the group of Prof. Ken Cheng at Macquarie University in Sydney. I investigated the foraging and visual navigation behaviour of Australian Melophorus desert ants. These highly thermophilic ants inhabit the arid regions of Central Australia. I have been working on two different species that live in greatly contrasting environments: Melophorus bagoti is found in the scrubby semi-arid outback, and Melophorus marmar only in featureless dry salt-pans. It turns out that the navigational strategies of each species are adapted to suit its respective visual habitat.
I then joined Dr. Ajay Narendra and Prof. Jochen Zeil at the Australian National University in Canberra. I investigated an interesting recruitment behaviour, tandem running, in the Banded Sugar Ant Camponotus consobrinus. The tandem consists of a leader ant showing a single follower ant the way to a food source. Intriguingly, many follower ants are experienced navigators themselves.
At Western Sydney University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, I collaborated with Dr. Sabine Nooten to conduct biodiversity assessments of urban golf courses. Many mornings were spent surveying the birdlife, and many evenings peering at ants under the microscope. The outcome was a useful management toolbox aimed at increasing the biodiversity value of urban green spaces.
I then worked in the team of Prof. Martin Giurfa at the University of Toulouse, France. We developed a visual virtual-reality setup for walking honeybees, and investigated their visual learning abilities using highly controlled stimuli. In addition, I used neuropharmacological microinjections to knock out specific parts of the bee’s brain and study their involvement in learning.
Following a brief period in the group of Prof. Wolfgang Rössler at the University of Würzburg in Germany, I took up my current position in Hong Kong.