The meconium as a unique source of eDNA for determining the diet of social wasps

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Secondary Supervisor:

Seirian Sumner

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Seirian Sumner's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Social wasps live in societies of 100s-1000s of individuals. The worker wasps hunt arthropod prey or scavenge animal protein to feed their larvae: this makes them important in the ecosystem as regulators of arthropod populations. However, we know very little about what wasps actually eat, and thus lack the information to assess their role in the ecosystem as predators. This studentship will use metabarcoding analyses of the waste products of wasp larvae – the meconium – to determine what wasps eat. Each larva accumulates the solid metabolic waste in the gut over its lifetime and excretes it as a meconium immediately prior to pupation. The meconium remains attached to the nest, even after the nest has been abandoned. Because the waste is highly condensed and desiccated, DNA is extremely well preserved and provides an entire record of food intake of individual larvae. The meconium therefore is a rich source of information for ecological, evolutionary and demographic studies of social wasps.

The student will use metabarcoding analyses of meconia from a range of social wasp species from contemporary and historic nests, to address questions including: (a) how does demography and seasonality affect resource use by social wasps? (b) Can diet differences between co-existing native and invasive species (e.g. Asian hornets) reveal the ecosystem impact of invasive social wasps? (c) Is there a phylogenetic basis to species-level differences in wasp diets? (d) Can historic wasp meconia, from nests in museum collections, be used to deduce changes in diet with environmental and land-use change?

Policy Impact of Research:

Meconia can be obtained easily from abandoned nests and hold some of the best-preserved environmental DNA (eDNA) anywhere, which has not been appreciated in the existing literature. The methodology will transform the study of wasp biology and their ecological role and impact through time and space.

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