With insects, this man knows wasps going on
Would you rather know a lot about one thing or a little about many things? While you think about that, meet Dr Raghavendra Gadagkar, 67, one of the world’s leading animal behaviour scientists. He’s spent all of his 40-year career learning a lot about one little thing. Gadagkar is curious about the Ropalidia marginata, a type of paper wasp commonly found in and around human habitations, nesting on trees and shrubs, rocks, crevices in walls, on window sills, etc. And he’s not done studying them.
Gadagkar is the DST Year of Science Chair Professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru. Through his decades of research, assisted year upon year by droves of students who come to IISc , he’s found out some fascinating things about conflict and co-operation in the colonies of these ferocious-looking creatures.
“Unlike in ants and bees, in the wasps that I study, the queen is not born. Every individual is born equal and anyone from the colony has the potential to become queen,” says Gadagkar. The reigning queen wasp secretes pheromones, which she spreads all over the colony, rendering every other member sterile and maintaining her place as the designated producer of offspring.
“From an evolutionary point of view, then, one would assume that every female wasp aspires to become the queen so she can have her own offspring. Immediately the situation should be rife for conflict.” But much to his amusement, Gadagkar has found that his wasps are very co-operative in the process. “If you take out the queen, within half an hour, the next queen is chosen and starts carrying out her duties,” he says. His experiments have led him to hypothesise that there exists a hierarchy of ascension among these wasps, but 40 years after studying them, he still cannot predict who is next in line to the wasp throne.
Gadagkar first noticed the R. marginata at his hostel when he was studying for his bachelor’s degree in zoology at Central College, Bengaluru. “As a novice, I didn’t know which species they were,” he says. “My zoology professors didn’t know either. They weren’t used to examining live animals.” He not only identified them but kept an eye on them right through earning his PhD in molecular biology from IISc in 1979. Then, he switched to studying animal behaviour – no prizes for guessing which one.
The wasps turned out to be a convenient subject of study – they are abundantly found (“Right now there is a colony in my office balcony,” he said during the interview), and their small colonies, with 30 to 40 individuals commonly occurring, were easy to track. And they didn’t seem to mind their nests being moved to the lab, a meshed wooden crate from which they can leave and return as they please.
Some aspects of the job, however, sting quite literally. Each wasp is colour coded by hand using a toothpick, and Gadagkar and his students have learnt some painful lessons. He doesn’t mind. “We are conducting cutting-edge research at a trifling cost,” he says.
He believes his life’s work will one day be deemed important. There are lessons in conservation, of course, but animal behaviour offers lots of lessons for humans too. “We cannot imitate nature blindly because you will find all kinds of systems in nature,” he says referring to dynamics that cover democracy, autocracy, monogamy, polygamy, parental care and parental neglect. “We should decide what we want to do based on our ethics, and then let the animals teach us how do it.”