An Interview with Smithsonian Entomologist: Yves Basset

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama is dedicated to understanding and studying the unique biodiversity of the tropics. STRI’s history  began with the construction of the Panama Canal and the  interest in surveying the flora and fauna of the area for the purpose of controlling insect diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. After the Canal began operating, entomologists and biologists involved in these studies establish a permanent biological reserve on Barro Colorado Island which is located in the Gatun Lake.  Today, STRI is one of the leading research institutions in the world. Every year over 900 scientist from academic and research institutions  from all over the world visit the STRI facilities to conduct scientific research and studies.

Today we had the opportunity to interview one of the prominent entomologist in the world who has his base in Panama City.  Doctor Yves Basset talk to EcoCircuitos Panama team about his work with the tropical ecosystems and the importance of tourism and conservation to protect the tropical environment.  Learn more about his work on this very interesting EcoVideo.

EcoCircuitos promotes conservation and education through the tourism industry.   For more information about our academic adventures, contact us at

Celebrate Green Friday with EcoCircuitos Panama

This November 28th when everyone will be rushing to the malls to shop, EcoCircuitos Panama will be supporting a local school by promoting environmental education.  We want to encourage the Panamanian youth on the importance of taking care of our environment.  By simple tasks as recycling, garbage disposal and other responsible practices that everyone can benefit from. Instead of being caught in traffic and the hustle and bustle in the city, join your community to turn Black Friday into Green Friday and plant a tree.  For those interested in a different adventure on the weekend, ask our office for the green tours including kayaking, biking, hiking and birding day tours.

Mercenary ants defend agricultural society



Often superior to citizen soldiers, mercenaries have played an important role in human conflicts since ancient times. A research team working at STRI discovered that a species of agriculturalist ants, Sericomyrmex amabilis, hosts a species of better-armed mercenary ants, Megalomyrmex symmetochus, who come to their rescue when their fungal gardens are invaded.

“Newly mated queens of the parasitic mercenary ants stealthily enter and establish their colonies in the gardens of the fungus-growing host ants,” said Rachelle Adams from Jacobus Boomsma’s lab at the University of Copenhagen. Adams is lead-author of the report published last week in PNAS.

With co-authors from Copenhagen and from the Department of Chemistry at the Virginia Military Institute, she found that the parasitic mercenary ants use their potent chemicals called alkaloids to defend host colonies against the raiding predatory ants, Gnamptogenys hartmani. The raiders can take over Sericomyrmex fungal gardens and nests.

During an attack, the mercenaries proved to be much more efficient than the host ants at killing the raiding predators. Even a moderate number of parasitic guest ants can provide protection against predatory attacks, effectively reducing host ant mortality.

However, the host ants pay a high price for the help. The mercenaries hamper host colony growth by feeding on the brood–the eggs and larvae–and by clipping the wings of host virgin queens, possibly to retain them as an additional work-force rather than let them disperse.

In addition, the authors show that raider ant scouts prefer to recruit to the colonies of the fungus-farming ants whose odor indicated that no mercenary ants were inside.

The inspiration for this project was a direct outcome of the University of Copenhagen and STRI supported graduate course, Tropical Behavioral Ecology and Evolution, offered in 2011, 2013 and planned for 2015. Two Copenhagen students from the 2011 course are junior authors on the study.

Adams, R.M.M., Liberti, J., Illum, A.A., Jones, T.H., Nash, D.R. and Boomsma, J.J. 2013. Chemically armed mercenary ants protect fungus-farming societies PNAS

A Whole New Meaning for Thinking on Your Feet

Photo: Pamela Belding

Smithsonian researchers report that the brains of tiny spiders are so large that they fill their body cavities and overflow into their legs. As part of ongoing research to understand how miniaturization affects brain size and behavior, researchers measured the central nervous systems of nine species of spiders, from rainforest giants to spiders smaller than the head of a pin. As the spiders get smaller, their brains get proportionally bigger, filling up more and more of their body cavities.
“The smaller the animal, the more it has to invest in its brain, which means even very tiny spiders are able to weave a web and perform other fairly complex behaviors,” said William Wcislo, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “We discovered that the central nervous systems of the smallest spiders fill up almost 80 percent of their total body cavity, including about 25 percent of their legs.”
Some of the tiniest, immature spiderlings even have deformed, bulging bodies. The bulge contains excess brain. Adults of the same species do not bulge. Brain cells can only be so small because most cells have a nucleus that contains all of the spider’s genes, and that takes up space. The diameter of the nerve fibers or axons also cannot be made smaller because if they are too thin, the flow of ions that carry nerve signals is disrupted, and the signals are not transferred properly. One option is to devote more space to the nervous system.
“We suspected that the spiderlings might be mostly brain because there is a general rule for all animals, called Haller’s rule, that says that as body size goes down, the proportion of the body taken up by the brain increases,” said Wcislo. “Human brains only represent about 2-3 percent of our body mass. Some of the tiniest ant brains that we’ve measured represent about 15 percent of their biomass, and some of these spiders are much smaller.”
Brain cells use a lot of energy, so these small spiders also probably convert much of the food they consume into brain power.
The enormous biodiversity of spiders in Panama and Costa Rica made it possible for researchers to measure brain extension in spiders with a huge range of body sizes. Nephila clavipes, a rainforest giant weighs 400,000 times more than the smallest spiders in the study, nymphs of spiders in the genus Mysmena.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems.

# # #
Quesada, Rosanette, Triana, Emilia, Vargas, Gloria, Douglass, John K., Seid, Marc A., Niven, Jeremy E., Eberhard, William G., Wcislo, William T. 2011. “The allometry of CNS size and consequences of miniaturization in orb-weaving and cleptoparasitic spiders.” Arthropod Structure and Development