Somehow the process of evolution, how it shaped species and caused speciation, has always held a fascination for me. Now I have the privilege to conduct evolutionary research besides being a biology teacher in secondary education. For my PhD-thesis I study figs and their pollinating wasps in the tropical forest in Panama. More specifically, I want to understand how fig wasps use odours from fig trees to recognize their host.
Evolution, chemical ecology, neotropics, fig-fig wasp mutualism
Figs and their figs wasps perhaps constitute one of most iconic and impressive mutualisms in nature and their reproductive cycles are tightly integrated.
Each of the at least 700 species of figs (genus Ficus) depends entirely on one or two wasp species for pollination. In turn, female fig wasps can only lay eggs in syconia, the reproductive organs of fig trees.
Volatiles produced by fig trees are important for host-recognition by fig wasps. Possibly, these volatiles can even maintain the wasps' host-specificity. If so, the responses of fig wasps to fig odours could have played a role in fig speciation. More information (Dutch): natuurwijzer.naturalis.nl
Picture left: a fig syconium and fig wasps that have emerged from it.