Blog: Research updates

Working with royals

Exciting times! I will again be working with monarch butterflies, the most iconic of all North American butterflies. We are interested in how this long-distance migrant copes with infection by the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. This parasite is host-specific and infects monarch caterpillars. Once the infected individual reaches the adult stage, the parasite releases spores that will infect a next generation of monarchs. Studies by Sonia Altizer, Jaap de Roode and colleagues have shown that infection reduces lifespan and reproductive output in monarchs. Infected individuals also have lower flight capacity, which in the case of a long-distance migrant with a declining population size, is not good news.

We are studying the mechanistic underpinnings of reduced flight capacity in infected monarchs. We are measuring metabolic rates at two levels: at the whole-animal and at the mitochondrial level. This should give us a pretty good understanding of what contributes to poor flight capacity.

We just picked up a set of pupae from the lab of Jaap de Roode at Emory University. The next step was to weigh all pupae and glue them to the lids of their individual cups where they will develop into adult butterflies. That’s what I call a royal welcome!

Graduate student Ashley Williams carefully attaching a pupa to the lid of a cup. The emerging butterfly needs to be hanging upside down to expand its wings. Photo by Ryan Weaver.




Monarch pupae are some of the most amazing creations of nature. Look at that pleasant blueish green colour and voluptuous shape! And what’s up with those gold ornaments? Turns out they’re not actually gold, but a combination of a structural colour and carotenoid pigments. Nobody really knows why all milkweed butterflies (family Danainae) have metallic-looking patches, though.


Pupae look dormant, but amazing things happen inside them. The entire animal and its tissues are being restructured and reshaped. I went ahead and measured the metabolism of a couple of pupae. There’s a lot of metabolic activity going on!

Monarch pupa MR

Previous work on Glanville fritillary butterflies showed that the metabolic activity of pupae was at its highest around midday, and like ectotherms do, they were more active in higher temperatures. The metabolic rate of a pupa however did not predict the resting or flight metabolic rate of the same individual when it had emerged as an adult butterfly.

Some individuals had brought a souvenir from their earlier life as a caterpillar. This is the crumpled larval skin that was left behind in the final moult.

We’re expecting the first adults to emerge this weekend. Stay tuned!


All photos by Ryan Weaver.

Preparing for new study

I will start a new project in the next weeks. I’m trying to solve an old mystery: Why do birds live longer than mammals? This is particularly surprising as birds have high metabolic rates and very active life styles and one could think that the high energy consumption comes with a cost. One particular cost that has been proposed to cause ageing, is oxidative stress. Oxidative damage occurs when free radicals and so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS) outweigh the defence of antioxidants and repair processes, and according to the free radical or oxidative stress theory of ageing, this is the main reason why we age.

Recent studies have however shown that the link between free radicals and ageing really isn’t that straightforward, and that ROS production may actually be a more controlled process than previously thought. Indeed, ROS act as signalling molecules in many biological processes.

Nevertheless, mitochondria, those symbiotic cell organelles famously called ‘the powerhouse of the cell’, seem to have a central role in both ROS production and ageing. Our understanding of the importance of mitochondrial function and the interplay between mitochondrial and nuclear genes in affecting health and fitness is rapidly growing. There is also an emerging field of mitochondrial ecology that may bring novel answers to old questions such as speciation and the geographic distribution of populations. In my current project, I will study mitochondrial function in multiple mammal and bird species with the aim of establishing whether mitochondria carry the secret of the long lives of birds.

At the moment, I’m maintaining a number of bird feeders that will help us to collect wild birds from their natural environment. Many previous studies have used animals bred in laboratories, but we are not convinced that animals adapted to a non-challenging and stable environment represent the vast majority of animals.


Doing my daily round of feeder-filling serves as a nice break from sitting in the office or working in the lab.

Behind art museum

The local surroundings are somewhat exotic from my Nordic perspective: sugar cane, soy beans and maize (corn).