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Gawne Richard | Fellow Postdoctoral
2017-09-15 - 2019-02-28 | Research area: EvoDevo
Agriculture as a Co-Evolutionary Process

It can be easy to forget that agriculture isn’t a uniquely human accomplishment. Various species of ants, bees, beetles, and termites maintain fungus gardens that are used as a primary food source. This means that in order to develop a truly general hypothesis about the origins or consequences of agriculture, we need to take human and insect systems into account. A review of the published literature from both of these fields reveals that research on the evolution of agricultural arrangements has been conducted almost exclusively from the perspective of the farmers, who are simply assumed to be ‘in charge’ of things. Accordingly, many have asked how the process of domestication affects the organisms being tended, but few have attempted to determine how partnering with a plant, animal, or fungus affects the evolutionary trajectory of the farmers. The driving rationale of my project is that agriculture should be studied as a co-evolutionary process that elicits significant changes in both farmers and cultivars. It is well known that the brain sizes of human-domesticated animals tend to be reduced, compared to their wild ancestors. Over the course of this project, I will use micro-CT scans to measure the ways in which entering into an agricultural relationship with fungi has impacted the brains of insect farmers. Normalizing for factors such as colony and body size, the prediction is that fungus-farming attine ants will show overall or region-specific reductions in brain size, compared to closely related hunter-gatherer species.