Interview with Jacques H.C. Delabie
Jacques Hubert Charles Delabie is a researcher at the Cocoa Research Centre (CEPEC) and gives classes at the State University of Santa Cruz (UESC). For over three decades, he has been working with ants. He has a broad interest in various topics, including histology, biogeography, sociobiology, exotic species, ant-plant interactions, etc. In this interview, we talk about his research career and his interests.
An Interview compiled by Alice Laciny
MNB: Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
JHCD: I am 61 years old, I am both French and Brazilian (naturalized), and I have been studying ants for the last 38 years. In 1979, I was a Master student (DEA) at the University Paris VI. Afterwards, I was doctorate student, first at the Research Station of Bees and Social Insects INRA / CNRS at Bures sur Yvette in France, then at the INRA Station of Petit-Bourg in Guadeloupe (French West Indies). After having defended my thesis (1984), I had a few small jobs in France; then I moved to Brazil where I ended up being hired in 1986 in the same institute I still am today: the Cocoa Research Centre (CEPEC), which belongs to the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture. Simultaneously, from 1991, I started to give classes at the State University of Santa Cruz (UESC), which I have continued until today. My scientific interests have been many, fluctuating over time: histology, community ecology, biogeography, polydomy, exotic species, ant-plant interactions, ant-Hemiptera mutualisms, not necessarily in this order.
MNB: Could you tell us a bit more about your research? Feel free to elaborate on a few of your favourite topics, please.
JHCD: In myrmecology, I had the chance to touch on different themes. For my Master degree and PhD thesis, I worked on the sensorial and central nervous system of the ant Acromyrmex octospinosus. Later, when I began working on the ants of cocoa plantations in Brazil, I started to look at the species that were considered pests by cocoa growers and carried out tests of insecticides against ants. My main ant companions were Wasmannia auropunctata, Atta cephalotes, and Azteca spp. Soon, I began a large sampling of soil ants using a hand-sampling system (thanks to the help of many people!). The next steps were to sample the ants of the litter of a cocoa plantation with Berleze-Tullgren traps. Harry Fowler was the myrmecologist who helped me to immerse myself in the biology of these soil ants. Some studies on Azteca chartifex and Azteca paraensis with its fantastic ant-garden constituted by Gesneriaceae were done. Later, with Marta Smith, we sampled ants living on 1,100 cocoa trees. This information will be analysed later, together with Jonathan Majer for a study on ant mosaics. At the same time, we began to set up a dry reference collection. I was granted a visit to the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo, where Beto Brandão led my first steps in ant taxonomy. Around the same period, partner works were done with David Williams of USDA taking advantage of studies on W. auropunctata [native here, invasive elsewhere] and its mutualistic mealybug Planococcus citri in cocoa plantations. When we began to sample ants with Winkler traps thanks to Donat Agosti, this was a little revolution. Many new specimens appeared and the collection grew, our methods of studying community ecology progressively changed, many new data were produced, and the names of the more popular ants moved to Strumigenys and Octostruma. More than 150 ant species were observed in a single hectare of cocoa plantation. During the following years, an intense collaboration developed with Dominique Fresneau. Jürgen Heinze and other people of University Paris XIII came to Brazil with a special interest in Ponerinae. Interesting studies at that time were carried out on the genera Thaumatomyrmex and Typhlomyrmex with French students. Collaborative studies on ant-plant relationships began with Alain Dejean and his team in French Guiana. I had a post-doctorate period at the Federal University of Viçosa with the biologist José-Eduardo Serrão that allowed me to work on the mutualism of Acropyga / Rhizoecini. This brought me back to histology of the mealybug, reminding me of my first studies on Acromyrmex. At the same time, I accompanied the studies of ant cytogenetics of my wife Cléa Mariano and Silvia Pompolo. This was the beginning of a very productive work touching aspects of evolution in ants, mainly Ponerinae. I later had two periods as invited lecturer in two French universities. One at Toulouse with Alain Dejean and the next year at Tours with Alain Lenoir and his team. From that time on, I started to spend a lot of time accompanying my students’ research and developing major research projects like the one that ended two years ago, focusing on Ponerinae and other subfamilies of ants, in which about fifty researchers participated. It is poorly known in temperate countries that the ants of this group and other so-called sub-families of “primitive” ants are most directly threatened with extinction by the degradation of tropical forest environments. During the last years, we have been lucky in developing collaborative studies on ponerine / mites and ponerine / springtails relationships Anibal Oliveira from UESC and Gabriela Castaño-Meneses from UNAM in Mexico.
MNB: How did you end up studying ants?
JHCD: This actually happened in several stages:
When I was about 13 years old, my sister had a teacher who reared butterflies and had a collection in her classroom that I discovered one day. So, Mrs. Carmen Napora was responsible for introducing me to the insects’ world. As sometimes happens with teenagers, I devoted all my available time to catching insects to study them once put in my collection. Fortunately, my parents immediately understood my interest for insects and helped me, spending all their Sundays making boxes for insect collection at home, because the genuine ones were too expensive.
The way I started studying ants is quite funny to tell. At the beginning of my Master’s degree, since I was already married to a Brazilian (not the same as today!), I was looking for an advisor who could help me with a research proposal to open the doors to Brazil for me. One of the teachers suggested contacting Claudine Masson, a neuroscientist working with ants. She answered that she had no contact at all with Brazil but she could send me to Guadeloupe in the French West Indies (‘Half way to Brazil!’ she said) to study the biology of Acromyrmex octospinosus. There, I met Alain Kermarrec and Gérard Febvay with whom I worked for more than a year on this leaf-cutting ant, on which I defended my thesis a little later after coming back to Paris.
After I had definitively moved to Brazil and assumed the job at the Cocoa Research Centre, my new boss requested me to make suggestions of research themes that I felt inspiring: I presented three possibilities: cocoa pollination (through Ceratopogonidae flies), apiculture, and ants that live in cocoa plantations. The year was 1986 and the decade before, a lot of publications had been published on ants’ management perspectives in cocoa plantations of West Africa (and other places) by English researchers, Dennis Leston and Jonathan Majer being the best known. I think that it is for this reason my boss requested me to study the ants in the Bahian cocoa plantations. And here I am …
MNB: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in myrmecology?
JHCD: Several great names of myrmecology were especially inspiring to my career, and I must acknowledge their fundamental support given at the right moment. I am certainly not the only one to have benefited from their influence since many other young biologists have worked with them at different times.
I must recognize that probably the initial kick was given to me by Harry Fowler. At the time I met him, he was already a teacher at the State University of São Paulo (UNESP) at Rio Claro. His specialty were the fungus-growing ants, and he had a lot of field experience with ants in several parts of the Neotropics. The discussions with him were exciting and could last for hours over a beer. At the very beginning of my work at Bahia, in early 1987, he and Luis Carlos Forti came to Ilhéus to look for ants with me. That was my initiatory journey.
In 1992, replying to an invitation made by Brazilian institutions, I had the opportunity to host Jonathan Majer at Bahia for a few weeks. It was a great experience to work in the cocoa fields of Bahia with this experienced myrmecologist who had mainly worked in Ghana and Australia until then. It was the beginning of a long collaboration, which continues until now, even after his retirement. As he married a Brazilian too, opportunities for him to come to Brazil do not lack.
I met Donat Agosti at the XII IUSSI Congress in Paris in 1994. He soon brought the new methodology of the Winkler trap to be tested in the cocoa fields local forests at Bahia. He was also responsible for the organization of the ALL (Ants of the Leaf-Litter) Workshop at Ilhéus in 1996. This meeting was the initial mark for the elaboration of the book “Ants, Standard Methods for Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity” which has become a big success since its publication in 2000 and contributed to establish the use of Winkler traps for ant studies of leaf-litter diversity. In 1997, together with Jim Carpenter, Sofia Campiolo, and him, we promoted a field course at Uruçuca (near Ilhéus) aiming to present field and laboratory methodologies for studying ants to students from Brazil; this was certainly the first course of this kind in South America.
Alain Dejean, Dominique Fresneau, and Maurice Leponce are also very inspiriting ant researchers. We met at the French Section meeting of IUSSI at Tangier, Morocco, in 1992. Dominique Fresneau is a very funny guy, and we had a great time together each time we met, either at Villetaneuse where he was teaching, or in Bahia where he came several times, until his retirement a few years ago. I got to know Alain Dejean at the IUSSI meeting in Paris but friendship developed later in French Guiana and at Toulouse. When I refer to him, I include several of his close collaborators, such as Bruno Corbara and Jerome Orivel. Maurice Leponce from Brussels (another collaborator of Dejean) enjoys saying that he loves both traveling in Brazil and working with large data series on ant assemblages in cocoa plantations, so occasions to meet and discuss ants’ cases are not missed.
I would be unfair if I did not mention many myrmecologists and students or former students who were also valuable sources of inspiration to me. There is no way to cite everyone, but Brazil counts with many great researchers distributed between the “Old Guard” and the newest generations of myrmecologists. I have still to mention Odair Correa Bueno at Rio Claro, currently the oldest active professional myrmecologist in Brazil (to my knowledge) and my old friend Terezinha Della Lucia at Viçosa. Outside of Brazil, many myrmecologists are or were (until they retired) great sources of inspiration for me as well as for many other people: Klaus Jaffé, Christian Peeters, and Fernando Fernández, to cite only a few I had the privilege to work with.
Another thing which needs to be mentioned here is the very important role that the book of Bert Hölldobler and Ed Wilson “The ants” (1990) has had. This Bible of Myrmecology does not need to be presented as everybody who reads these lines already knows it. The same could certainly be said about “Ants, their Structure Development and Behavior” (1910) by William M. Wheeler. The book “Les Fourmis: Comportement, Organisation Sociale et Évolution“ (2005) by Luc Passera and Serge Aron is an evident complement to “The Ants”. Unfortunately, it has not become so popular, probably because written in French. The last aspect is all the work done by Barry Bolton in developing comprehensive catalogues (printed first and online later) of the ants of the World that everybody uses today.
MNB: What is your motivation for doing ant research now?
JHCD: My motivation for studying ants until now is due to several good reasons: Over the last 30 years, I have been able to build a very large dry collection of mainly Neotropical ants, and I should like to put it in the hands of a new curator in the coming years, before I retire. A collection like this one is a powerful tool for studying ant taxonomy, biogeography, and diversity, among other things.
The second reason is that I constantly have a very nice group of students working at the lab with me, and it is very stimulating to do research with young and interested people.
The third reason is that Brazil is a megadiverse country where the ant fauna is extremely rich, and I always feel excited when I can see samples full of ants, commonly with one or more specimens of a species I have never seen before.
MNB: What are the main differences regarding research when you started as a myrmecologist compared with today?
JHCD: There are many, but I will say that the most important changes concern the speed at which information travels.
I remember a letter I sent to Neal Weber around 1990 asking for details about the Acropyga from his article of 1944, the reply to which came to me about two months later, typed and annotated with a seemingly trembling hand (he was already over 80 years old at that moment). Today, consulting a specialist by email and receiving an answer takes half a day, 24 hours at most. A few years ago, I had written an English abstract to be submitted at an international meeting. As my English is generally rather poor, I sent it by email to Alan Andersen in Australia, asking him if he could take a look. In less than six hours, he kindly answered me after correcting my short text.
A second point is the access to bibliography. The practice of myrmecology 30 years ago needed a stock of reprints and books directly available in your office or at the library. At that moment, Sanford Porter and Dan Wojcik spent a considerable time updating FORMIS every year and when you requested these data, they kindly sent them to you as floppy disks. So, you had to copy these disks onto your computer, aiming to install the data bank for your own use. Today, all this information is available practically with a single click on Google or other search engines. Isn’t the internet a fantastic tool?
MNB: If you had not become a myrmecologist / entomologist, what else would you have liked to become?
JHCD: I suppose that I could have been an archaeologist or anthropologist studying the first ages of human kind (one of my hobbies); or historian, probably specializing on the First World War. My special interest is due to my grandfather who fought in the Belgian army for five years, and I spent a large part of my childhood listening to him telling me war stories. I confess that I was fascinated.
MNB: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome in ant research?
JHCD: In Brazil, it is common to experience the lack of money for research at the moment where you particularly need it. At least once per year we used to face this problem for a few months. Fortunately, my lab is situated in the grounds of the Cocoa Research Centre with about 750 hectares of cocoa plantations and forest around us, so we are continuously able to conduct fieldwork at low costs.
MNB: During your research, what was the funniest moment?
JHCD: I can tell you about two moments, which were on the one hand rather boring but on the other hand funny due to the circumstances:
The first was in 2002 when I was in a bus going from the airport of Belo Horizonte coming back from Bahia with several nests of Acropyga berwicki destined to be studied at Viçosa. They were transported in two packings of Scottish whisky in a transparent plastic bag. There was no space to put the package in my overhead storage, so I placed them two seats in front of me. We finally arrived after a tedious travel of about 40 minutes, during which I dozed a little. To my surprise, my package was gone. A thief had grabbed it and left the bus at an intermediate stop taking advantage of my slumber. I confess that I first felt angry and disappointed, but finally the situation seemed particularly comical, as I was imagining the face of my robber thinking of a good swig of whisky, whereas in fact he found only clay soil (Acropyga nests are small and very discreet and hardly visible for those who do not know how to look for them).
The second moment was several years later when I brought a group of students from my geography class of UESC to visit a forest area. My daughter Laura was with us and she was about four years old. We saw a worker of Dinoponera lucida crossing the path. This ant attracts everyone’s attention mainly because of its very large size for an ant (>3 cm). It had recently been put on the Brazilian list of endangered species. I gave a long explanation to the students about the biology of the species but also about the need for it to be protected, its natural habitat being more and more fragmented, and finally I insisted that it was necessary to pay attention to not disturb it, step on it, etc. The group began to move away, but Laura stepped forward and with a great, voluntary step, crushed the unfortunate ant (my daughter was not too heavy and the ant probably survived). However, the students tell this story to the more recent ones, and with certain vagueness, still pass it on, as I could verify very recently.
MNB: … and what was the moment you enjoyed most?
JHCD: In August 1996, the ALL (Ants of the Leaf-Litter) Workshop was certainly the most incredible moment I have attended during my myrmecologist life. Donat Agosti was the main promoter of the event, and I acted as local organizer. A group of 23 myrmecologists met for five days of intense discussions on ant sampling, taxonomy, ecology, etc. in a hotel at Ilhéus, in my lab, and in the field at the Cocoa Research Centre. This meeting was at the origin of the book “Ants, Standard Methods for Measuring and Monitoring Biodiversity”. For five days, Ilhéus became the center of the myrmecological world. Our most important visitor was assuredly Bill Brown, and this was certainly the last time he went to the field, as he passed away about six months later.
MNB: What do you enjoy most about ant research?
JHCD: I particularly enjoy working with social organisms as they are very diverse in their morphology, ecological impact, and social functions. Such richness is extremely stimulating for the researcher and is also a good motivation source to the students who are looking for an original research topic.
MNB: What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about ants?
JHCD: Many people (at least here in Brazil) see ants as pests of agriculture or boring little organisms living in their sugar bowl. In Brazil, this may be the case for 15 species. Most of the people have no idea of the ant diversity out there or the importance of ants for the terrestrial environments, such as ecosystem engineers, agents of biocontrol for a range of other insects, etc. I think that everyone needs to know at least that …
MNB: Do you have a favorite ant / morphological structure / myrmecological phenomenon?
JHCD: My favorite ant genus is Acropyga. These ants live in mutualism (or rather symbiosis) with mealybugs in small colonies confined to around superficial roots of trees. This mutualism is so fantastic that during the mating flight, the female holds a fertilized female of the mealybug between her mandibles while the male is busy on the other side. Alex Wild illustrated this interesting “Ménage à Trois”.
MNB: Do you have any suggestion for myrmecology-beginners?
JHCD: Read, read a lot! Young scientists generally take their information from recent publications only. Sometimes good ideas appearing new and genuine were already investigated decades before, and it is not desirable that your research consists of something that has been done before. So, papers by William Morton Wheeler, Thomas Borgmeier, or Francis Bernard are still relevant and full of information useful for any myrmecologist.
If you compare the number of authors in older and recent publications, it will be easily observed that until quite recently, most of the papers were authored by one or two authors. In the last two decades, 90% of the papers are written by many co-authors. This may be due to the way research is financed, but the multi-authored articles are also the product of a better cooperation within and between laboratories. Each co-author contributes with his best to the group to produce manuscripts of higher quality and, in this manner, the group is collectively able to produce more papers with a higher probability of being accepted. A good paper is often the result of a collective effort. So my suggestion for beginners who want to follow an academic career is to seek to collaborate with somebody with experience or better, a team of myrmecologists.
MNB: What would you do differently if you could start all over again?
JHCD: I would like to publish the papers which originated during my thesis (neuroanatomy of an ant brain). Publishing did not seem so important at that time, and like many students who do not have a job after a period of intense stress (thesis defense), I decompressed by doing completely different things. There were so many interesting topics in this thesis (well, I think so) that would have deserved publication. Today, after 34 years, my own research on the ant brain is totally out of date and it seems impossible to start over from the beginning.
MNB: What questions are you asked most often when people hear you work with ants?
JHCD: I have been hearing the same kinds of questions for the past 30 years: “How I can kill the ants which: a) forage in my kitchen; b) cut the plants in my backyard; c) tend aphids on my roses; d) make a hole in the ground of my terrace?”
MNB: On the same note – how do you actually protect your kitchen against ants?
JHCD: I warrant free access to the ants as long as they do not abuse the situation.
MNB: What’s the book on your bedside table?
JHCD: “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari. I liked his precedent book: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” very much.
MNB: Watching sports or doing sports?
JHCD: Hum! Remote control for zapping or turning off the TV, except for rugby.
MNB: Evening or morning?
JHCD: No preference.
MNB: Tea or coffee?
JHCD: Coffee without milk.
MNB: Sugar or sweetener?
JHCD: Sweetener (which gives me the clear conscience to eat chocolate later).
MNB: Aspirator or forceps?
MNB: Nest densities or pitfall traps?
JHCD: Winkler traps, Collector’s curves.
MNB: Field or lab?
MNB: Pin or ethanol?
MNB: Paper reprint or pdf?
JHCD: Until the year 2000 (more or less): reprints; since 2000: pdf.
MNB: Kin selection or group selection?
JHCD: Group selection.
MNB: Monodomy or supercoloniality?
MNB: Worker or queen?
MNB: Thank you again for the nice interview.