Research

The Molecular Compounds Driving
Behavioral Manipulation of
Zombie Ants

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The term "Zombie Ant" is used to describe Carpenter ants (ants of the Camponotus genus) that have been infected by one of many different species of Ophiocordyceps, fungal pathogens capable of altering the behavior of their hosts! These fungi secrete biomolecules that interact with the nervous system in the ant, causing it to act in peculiar ways.

Modified behaviors include: hyperactivity, staggers syndrome, failure to antennate, antisocial behavior, summit disease, the death grip, and disrupted circadian rhythm, some of which are demonstrated in the videos to the right! (Top: staggers syndrome, failure to antennate, antisocial behavior, Middle: the death grip, Bottom: disrupted sleep/wake cycle).

These behavioral modification are essential for the lifecycle of Ophiocordyceps. Infected ants are made to abandon their nest and climb to the periphery of nearby vegetation, a process known as "summit disease", before they are forced to clamp down with their mandibles, ensuring that the ant does not fall during the growth of the fungal fruiting body. The fungus then emerges from the back of the head, forming a mushroom containing the next generation of spores! These spores are ejected from the host and float down onto more unsuspecting ants!

The extraordinarily intricate relationship between

Ophiocordyceps and Camponotus has lead to a tight Co-evolution between the two groups, resulting in the many different host-specific pairings shown below!

 

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The truly remarkable nature of behavioral manipulation is not unique to zombie ants. Some Ophiocordyceps species infect other types of insects as well, including bees, beetles, and wasps. As a mater of fact, there are many other groups of fungi that infect and manipulate the behavior of insects like cicadas, beetles, and fruit flies as well!

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Active learning is a modernized set of teaching and learning practices that involve active participation of students in the classroom. This approach has been shown to generate higher levels of understanding when compared the traditional lecture-style teaching and learning. While "passive learning" simply involves listening and taking notes, active learning includes a wide array of hands-on and/or critical thinking activities that incorporate higher levels of thinking (e.g., role-playing, case studies, group projects, think-pair-share, clicker questions, flipped lecture, peer teaching or review, three step interviews, debate, and hands on activities, just to name a few). These higher levels of thinking are outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy as Application, Analysis, Evaluation, and Creation. Together, these lead to better retention of information and a greater ability to apply learned material.

Mounting evidence that active learning greatly improves student preparedness after college has led to growing calls for science education reform at the college level. Many universities and colleges are now starting to encourage the incorporation of active learning techniques in the classroom by providing tools that help facilitate a hands-on learning experience. These tools can include things like monitors, individual white boards, clickers, mics and speakers, modular seating arrangements, and multiple projectors. The image to the left demonstrates one such active learning environment setup to facilitate group-oriented active learning lectures.

Some pioneering universities have heeded the calls for teaching reform and have begun investing in active learning through the construction of active learning environments. The University of Louisville is one such university leading the charge to incorporate active learning in their classrooms by building new education buildings, e.g., the Belknap Academic Building, outfitted entirely with active learning classrooms. These classrooms range in student capacity from 20-124 students!

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With such a large level of investment into active learning, it is important that we understand the effect that these techniques can have on students from different demographics. Dr. Beckerson's DEBR research seeks to address this need by analyzing the effect that active learning, particularly group-based active learning activities, affects students of different social personalities (e.g., introverts and extroverts). Differences in performance for group-related activities linked to an individuals level of extroversion is an important factor to consider when deciding what types of active learning techniques should be used in the classroom, as some fields are populated more heavily with introverts/extroverts. Furthermore, it is important to consider the work place environment that these students will be hired into when designing active learning classes in order to better prepare students for life after college.

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Metacognition, or the self awareness or understanding of how one thinks and learns, is another area of research that William is just beginning to explore using DBER, particularly its role in student preparedness for college. If you are interested in any of these topics and would like to read more about his findings, check out the PUBLICATIONS tab!