Growing up in the Venetian countryside gave me the opportunity to develop my interest in nature, especially animals. Thus, my studies in Biology-Zoology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Padua (Italy) have simply been a natural consequence. During my Masters project on honeybees and their trophallactic behaviour, my enthusiasm towards social insects and their evolution got strengthened and led me to the present state.
Indeed, since I started my PhD in Lund in 2008, I am carrying on a project to investigate which has been the role played by chemical communication in the evolution of social behaviour and nest parasitism in Acacia thrips. The project is under supervision of Prof. Olle Anderbrant and Dr. Glenn Svensson and in collaboration with Dr. Tom Chapman and his lab at the Memorial University, St. Johns, in Newfoundland, Canada.
Thrips or Thysanoptera are tiny haplodiploid insects (1-3 mm long) mostly known worldwide as crop pests. Some species, however, do not have this negative reputation and present interesting ecological traits. Gall-inducing Acacia thrips, for example, have become a suitable model clade to understand how selective pressures could have shaped a social system in relatively short time. Australian gall-inducing thrips (Kladothrips, see picture to the right) are tiny insects that produce their domicile via gall induction in developing phyllodes on Acacia trees. For 7 of the 23 described species of Australian gall-inducing thrips, the first individuals of the foundress brood to eclose are gall-bound soldiers, which are morphologically and behaviourally specialised for defending the fully-winged dispersing brood.
Other thrips species belonging to the genus Koptothrips, are specialist invaders of the galls. Depending on species, the host-parasite relationship may vary from coexistence of the two species within the nest to killing of all members of the host species performed by the parasites. As a consequence, nest parasites are thought to be one of the major selective forces underlying the evolution of soldier morphology and behaviour.
While phylogenetics and behaviour of these social insects and their nest parasites have received attention, knowledge about what chemicals are involved in the different kin, intra- or interspecific interactions is still lacking, and this is what I am currently investigating in my project. I use different methods to achieve my purpose: electrophysiological investigations, both on host and parasite species, paired to gas-chromatographic analyses as well as behavioural assays.
Monica De Facci