A scientist excited by termites - and the role of termite kings in bolstering the queens' fertility - has been named a Sir Keith Murdoch Fellow and is carrying out research at The University of Western Australia.
Dr Tamara Hartke, who completed her PhD at Northeastern University in Boston, said there were more than 3000 species of termites, all living in social colonies with distinct division of labour. They can be devastating pests but are also important in soil nutrient recycling.
Dr Hartke will work at UWA's Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER) with Future Fellow Professor Boris Baer, an expert in social insects. "Western Australia is a perfect location to conduct this research because it is home to not only an astonishing diversity of termites but also the cutting-edge equipment and expertise provided by CIBER," Dr Hartke said.
She will focus on interactions within and between the sexes during termite mate choice and will manipulate termite kings to understand their role in queens' fertility and in suppressing the sexual development of their offspring.
Dr Hartke, who is a behavioural ecologist and insect sociobiologist, said that males of other social insects - such as ants, bees, and wasps - die during or shortly after copulating, and fathers do not contribute to colony life.
However, termite kings can live for up to several decades and participate in establishing colonies, producing sperm, copulating with the queen and influencing colony development.
"I want to understand how termite kings achieve these exceptional levels of fertility and fecundity, and what other effects they have on performance and social organisation in their colonies," Dr Hartke said.
Her research at UWA aims to better understand the evolution of sociality in the insect world.