On this episode of Curiosity Cake podcast I talk with real life antman Dr Balint Kacsoh of the Univeristy of Pennsylvania. See below for images of ants discussed.
Balint was an undergraduate student at Emory University, under the mentorship of Dr. Nathan Mortimer and Todd Schlenke, where he studied the physiological and behavioral immune response of Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) and other Drosophilids in the genus Drosophila in response to predatory wasps. They uncovered physiological mechanisms of Drosophila larvae allowing successful immune responses in addition to uncovering novel wasp venom components. He was also involved in uncovering multiple unique behavioral responses of adult Drosophila to the predatory wasps.
As a graduate student at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, under the mentorship of Dr. Giovanni Bosco, his primary studies were on learning, memory, aging, and social behavior in Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly). He developed novel behavioral paradigms accounting for the natural life history of the fly. This led to identification of new behaviors in addition to dissection of the associated underlying physiological, genetic, and neurological change. Additionally, he was involved in a cancer study, where he participated in characterizing a new drug in a patient derived tumor.
Currently, Balint is the Rebecca Ridley Kry Fellow of the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation in the lab of Dr. Shelley Berger at the University of Pennsylvania. His long-term goal is to answer the questions above using the more fluid reproductive plasticity present in ponerine ants such as Harpegnathos saltator, which he is using to study the epigenetic effects of caste identity as a function of social environments. He is also utilizing Camponotus floridanus as a model to study the effect of social interaction on epigenetics, lifespan, and physiology. And finally he is studying Atta cephalotes as a model to dissect epigenetic regulation of caste determination and behavior in an advanced social system.
You can find Balint on twitter and see more of his amazing ant images: https://twitter.com/BalintZKacsoh
If you want to do some reading up on ants check out these books:
Ants of Britain and Europe https://amzn.to/33arutz
Tales from the Ant World: https://amzn.to/2ZwWWkL
Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration https://amzn.to/3jRwkCD
Army Ants: Nature's Ultimate Social Hunters https://amzn.to/35g3yr1
Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions https://amzn.to/2R4w1b6
Below are images of the ants we talk about during the episode:
There are a number of leaf cutter ants, so named because they chew leaves. They are a tropical species which grow fungus and can be found in South and Central America, Mexico, and parts of the southern United States
Not all leaf cutter ants cut leaves. some carry them too. They process the leaves to make food for the fungus they feed on.
Super major ants are soldiers and defend the colony. They have large heads to give their jaws great strength for fighting.
Harpegnathos ants have complex colonies and are able to jump. They can be found in south and south east asia.
Campanotus are also known as carpenter ants. Their name refers to the fact they use wood to build their nests. They can be found in many forested areas around the world. The queen is ont he left, worker on the right.
The Florida carpenter ant C. floridanus possesses two distinct worker castes: Major and Minor workers. These two worker castes display disparate morphologies and behaviors, where Minor workers perform foraging for the colony and nursing of brood, while Major workers defend the nest. These ants are highly related, yet look and act very different. This points to epigenetic regulation being key for their unique differences.
Harpegnathos saltator have a unique life history when compared to most other ants, as they hunt live prey. Here, you can see a H. saltator female stinging a live cricket with a venom comprised of a unique paralytic. Note the large eyes of these ants, which helps their visual hunting style.
A leaf carrier of the species Atta cephalotes. A. cephalotes have 10 unique castes, including the queen and male. Leaf carriers keep their antennae pointing down to the ground to smell a trail they laid in order to return to their nest.
Antonia is Balint’s passion project. The goal is science communication and show young audiences that ants are not gross, but a truly remarkable system to study.