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Small Creatures, Complex Behaviors: How One Scientist Got Hooked on Entomology

Tolulope Morawo in lab

In the course of his recent research, Tolulope Morawo, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at Auburn University, struggled to get useful results from tests using a traditional, horizontal four-choice olfactometer (a device for measuring insect response to olfactory stimuli). So, he designed an alternate version with a longer central tube and angled arms to improve the aerodynamics of the odor-laden air; the new design led to much improved results, Morawo says. Here, he tests the attraction of parasitic wasps (Microplitis croceipes) to herbivore-induced plant volatiles in the modified four-choice olfactometer. (Photo credit: Morgan Gregg)

By Lina Bernaola

Editor’s Note: This post is the seventh post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Tolulope Morawo, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at Auburn University. Morawo got his M.S. in 2013 and Ph.D. in 2017 studying insect chemical ecology of tritrophic interactions, with potential practical applications in integrated pest management (IPM). In 2017, he was awarded the “Friends of Southern IPM” award (Ph.D. category) by the Southern IPM Center, which describes the award as recognizing extraordinary achievement in research, extension, and implementation of IPM in the southern region of the United States.

Tolulope Morawo, Ph.D.

Tolulope Morawo, Ph.D.

Since joining ESA as a student member in 2012, Morawo has presented his research at Southeastern Branch Meetings and ESA Annual Meetings. Tolu has also volunteered at ESA meetings in various capacities, including working at the registration booth and the presentation upload rooms and as Linnaean Games timekeeper. Furthermore, he served on the Student Affairs Committee of the Southeastern Branch of ESA, where he chaired the Linnaean Games subcommittee. He has also participated in the Linnaean Games and won two awards in the ESA Student Debates with the Auburn team. He is currently organizing a Member Symposium at Entomology 2018 titled “Multitrophic Interactions in a Changing World.”

Below, we ask Morawo (who goes by “Tolu,” for short) a few questions about his research, and we hope that you will enjoy learning about him and the extraordinary research he is doing.

Bernaola: What is your favorite aspect about your research area?  

Morawo: My favorite aspect of my research is observing insect behavior and figuring out better ways of reporting these observations. Whether it is in the lab using olfactometers, a flight tunnel, or a petri dish arena or in the field under the influence of natural elements, I truly enjoy observing insect behavior. While there are those who argue that insect responses are mostly fixed action patterns, I still think insects are awesome and fascinating. I guess what amazes me the most is how their relatively tiny brains and limited number of neurons are capable of coordinating very complex activities. It’s really cool to see how some insects go about their business.

What is a challenge that you solved during your most recent project? 

I was not getting good results when I started testing the attraction of parasitic wasps to herbivore-induced plant volatiles in a traditional (horizontal) four-choice olfactometer. Most of the insects stopped making oriented movements once they got into the decision-making area. I did some troubleshooting to optimize the system, but I was still having a challenge getting the insects to respond to test stimuli. I later decided to redesign the olfactometer. The new design was mostly vertical with a longer central tube for insects to walk up the apparatus. In addition, the olfactometer arms were inclined at an angle to the decision-making area to improve the aerodynamics of odor-laden air. The new design fixed the initial problem and yielded significantly better response rate in test insects.

Why did you become an entomologist, and what drew you to this field? 

My interest in entomological research began in Nigeria, where I did my undergraduate study. I majored in biology and took a wide range of classes, but studying bugs was not initially on my priority list. It all started when I met Dr. Henry Fadamiro during one of his seminars as a visiting professor to my university. I listened to his presentation on how phorid parasitic flies find their fire ant hosts, parasitize them, and decapitate them upon emergence. It was the first time I heard about parasitoids and I couldn’t contain my fascination. The desire to know more about the life history and strategies of parasitoids drew me to this field.

I later joined Dr. Fadamiro’s program at Auburn University for my graduate study (M.S. and Ph.D.). While I did not get to work on phorid flies, I worked on the chemical ecology of plant-herbivore-parasitoid tritrophic interactions using the parasitoids Microplitis croceipes and Cotesia marginiventris (both braconids) as study species.

If you could be any arthropod, which would you pick and why? 

In general, I have always liked big beetles. If I could be an arthropod species, it has to be the Hercules beetle, Dynastes hercules; it’s my favorite. Males of the Hercules beetle have a characteristic long horn that sets them apart. I also like their body color, which is often a combination of black and olive green. I have read that they are the longest species of beetles in the world, with males reaching up to 175 millimeters in length! While their external morphological features may creep some people out, I just think they are the cutest!

Lina Bernaola is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the current student representative to the ESA Governing Board, and a member of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @linabernaola. Email: lbernaola@agcenter.lsu.edu

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