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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Ummat Somjee

Somjee U portrait web

Ummat Somjee is one of our 2021 Stengl-Wyer Scholars and is researching the evolution of exaggerated sexually-selected traits in animals. His research aims to understand how the energetic costs underlying these exaggerated traits may shape their evolution. As part of the Stengl Wyer Endowment, the Stengl Wyer Postdoctoral Scholars Program provides up to three years of independent support for talented postdoctoral researchers in the broad area of the diversity of life and/or organisms in their natural environments.

Ummat talks about his research and how he became involved in his focus...

Tell us where you came from before becoming a Stengl-Wyer Scholar, and what you studied then?

I developed my initial fascination with biology animals while I was growing up in Kenya, I would always bring home insects and snakes that I would find on my walk back from school (my parents were supportive – but I think live insects and snakes in the house did stress them out a little). I completed my high school in Kenya before moving to do an undergraduate degree in Canada. In Canada, I took field assistant jobs in as many projects as I could, I studied island ecology on remote islands in British Columbia, shorebird nesting patterns in Alaska and rattlesnake dispersal patterns in Alberta. I really enjoyed field work and learning about the peculiarities of different animals, but as my questions got bigger my study organisms got smaller. I realized insects provided many opportunities to ask interesting questions in biology and evolution. At the University of Florida, I got to study entomology and developed an even deeper fascination with insects. I had the chance to work in the tropics again as a post-doc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, this work on tropical insects allowed me to reconnect with the organisms that initially inspired my fascination with biology. As a Stengl-Wyer scholar I am thrilled to continue to work on insects, asking broad questions about the factors that shape their evolution.

bug web
Acanthocephala femorata is a species of leaf-footed bug that is found in the Brackenridge Field Laboratory. These insects use their large muscular legs as weapons in combat with rivals.

What got you interested in studying the evolution of exaggerated sexually-selected traits in animals?

I was really young when I first saw an elephant, and I remember being amazed at their looming size and the tusks that erupted from their jaws. I later learned that elephant tusks, elk antlers and rhinoceros horns all have some things in common, these weapons are shaped by competition for mates. When I started learning about the world of insects, I found that some tiny weevils have tusks, many beetles have rhino-like horns and some flies have antlers on their heads (these antlered-flies have fights where they lock antlers just like elk fights but at a miniature scale); we know surprisingly little about these insects and how these structures evolve. For me these sexually-selected traits exemplify many very basic questions in evolutionary biology: why do some animal traits get so big? Why are some traits so diverse while others are not? These are the types of questions that motivate my research. I am always amazed to find parallel evolution processes play out at different scales in startlingly different animals. It’s incredible to see the parallels, for example, between the tusks of elephants to the tiny tusks of tusked-weevils.

Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research? 

A large part of my research centers around trying to understand the energetic costs of sexually selected traits, how do large insects bear the energetic costs of carrying big horns, or large fighting-legs? The University of Texas at Austin has some leading researchers in the field of sexual selection, but also has leading researchers in the study of energetics, so I am extremely fortunate to be in a place where I have the resources and expertise where can draw connections between these fields. As an early career biologist, this position provides a rare opportunity to launch exciting integrative research and provides me with the necessary support and mentorship to develop essential tools and my own research expertise. I plan to use our increased knowledge and ability to measure cellular energetics to shine a new light on a very old question in evolutionary biology, how can animals bear the energetic costs of extremely large sexually-selected traits? The Entomology Collection at the Biodiversity Center will also give me the resources to get measurements on different species of insects and their sexually selected traits. Texas also has some amazing insect diversity, and a range of habitat types. There are dozens of species of Coreid (leaf-footed bugs) in Texas, these insects have developed muscular legs that males use in combat during competition for reproduction. You can see this in the picture above and to the right.


How do field labs like Brackenridge Field Lab and Stengl Lost Pines figure into your work? 

The Brackenridge Field Lab provides a really valuable resource to increase my ability to do research on this insects. This area has many species of leaf-footed bugs, which I will be able to study on their natural host plants in the field. It is amazing to me to be able to have access to a field site so close to the laboratory, and this will be critical for my research since I will not have to travel far to find my study subjects. I am looking forward to having a chance to do field work along with my laboratory work, and this field lab provides great opportunity to do both.

Where do you see your research agenda heading here at UT?

The ornamented feathers or birds and the large tusks of elephants are some of the features that attracted me to this field, these structures draw our attention and pique our curiosity. I think these sexually-selected structures in animals are fascinating to us in part because they reveal different ways that animals perceive beauty or signal power. My goals are to use insects as a model to delve deeper into the energetic and behavioral processes that may be shaping their evolution. In this way I hope to engender a deeper appreciation of insect diversity by telling detailed stories about their evolution, and drawing parallels with many processes that shape the evolution of many other conspicuous traits in nature.


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