Hullo, I'm Olle, I'm a biologist/ecologist/entomologist and science communicator, currently working at the Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, Sweden. Last week I defended my PhD thesis, which you can find here, including a .pdf link to the thesis summary.

Briefly, my work for the past five years has focused on the ways in which insects tune their life cycles to the local climate, and the genetic mechanisms that make such adaptation possible. We've been using the speckled wood butterfly as a model system, a widespread species that varies in its life cycle across Europe. In places with long warm seasons it produces several generations per year; where the season is short, it only produces one generation per year. Many insects show this kind of variation, and when they're economically important (like pest insects), it can make a big difference! Results from our lab have connected the variation in life cycles with variation in circadian clock genes, which may be helping the butterflies tell what time of year it is by interpreting the duration of daylight.

My thesis consists of four papers, two of which have been published elsewhere, here and here. (Also, here's a blog post about the second paper.) Proof picture here. Ask away if you're curious about my research, insect science, or anything else!

EDIT: Thanks a lot for all the questions, this was fun! Several people wanted to know about how to attract butterflies to their gardens, which I think is great, and can really help with conservation. There are two parts to this: planting nectar plants to feed the adults, and (most importantly) planting host plants to feed the caterpillars. Different species use different host plants, so look up what butterflies live in your area and garden accordingly. Here's a great guide for a European context; this website has some info for North America. As a general rule of thumb, grow some native plants in your garden; this hugely increases the chances that native insects can make use of them. And if you really want to help local insects, be prepared that some of the leaves will be eaten — this is, after all, how more butterflies are made.

Comments: 413 • Responses: 57  • Date: 

PH0T0Nman200 karma

What effect, if any, did you find humans have of on lifecycles? I.e cities tend to be warmer so they butterfly’s lived longer? Or something.

How close together where these different lifecycles? Is it sudden and side by side (one population in the forest and the other in the field next to it) ? Or is it a gradual change over many kilometres?

Edit: Also what are Circadian clock genes?

mabolle133 karma

We haven't been testing directly for effects of human activities in our lab, but it's been observed that a lot of species are shifting or extending their seasons with the increase in temperature, especially spring temperatures. In some cases this includes adding an extra generation per year. It's even having evolutionary consequences: some species are changing their internal "calendars" to go into hibernation later in the year.

How close together where these different lifecycles? Is it sudden and side by side (one population in the forest and the other in the field next to it) ? Or is it a gradual change over many kilometres?

We're talking ~50 km for some of the populations I've been working with, but it can potentially be even more abrupt if you've got a sharp difference in the environment (mountain terrain to coastal is the strongest example). It also helps if the insects don't move much from one environment to the next, so that each population can accumulate its own genetic profile that locally adapts its life cycle. With voltinism (the number of generations per year, the focal trait of my thesis), the key environmental variable is the length of the growing season, which falls off pretty quickly as you move uphill (and more slowly if you move away from the equator). You only have time for several generations per year if the season is long enough to allow for it; otherwise you risk the whole population dying off if winter suddenly arrives when the insects aren't in their hibernation-ready life cycle stage. So they're under pretty strong selection to express a life cycle that works where they are.

PH0T0Nman25 karma

Thanks mate, that’s a real clear cut answer. And fascinating!

mabolle20 karma

Happy to help! :D

mabolle59 karma

Also what are Circadian clock genes?

Gonna answer this in a separate reply for easier overview.

So a circadian clock is a mechanism that tells an organism's body what time of day it is, and informs when different activities and processes in the body should be taking place. It's why we get jet-lagged when we travel east or west, and why you can still retain a working sleep schedule even after spending several days in complete darkness. The circadian clock consists of a set of genes that turn one another on and off in a perpetual feedback loop in the brain; the loop takes circa 24 hours to complete, hence the word "circa-dian", and daylight helps keep the clock loop synchronized with the actual day-night cycle. We've got circadian clocks; pretty much every other animal does too; even plants, fungi, and some bacteria do. A lot of the genetic machinery that makes up the clock is extremely old, and has been handed down the generations so that it's recognizably the same between very distantly related species. The guys who described the fruit fly circadian clock (by far the best-understood model system for this) won a Nobel Prize a couple years back.

Turns out, some of these genes are also involved in controlling insect life cycles. This has been shown in various species, and appears to also be the case in the butterflies that I work with. More specifically, these genes have been linked to the control of diapause by daylength. Diapause is the resting state that an insect enters as winter approaches, and in most temperate species, it's activated by days becoming shorter in the fall. This is the probable link to circadian genes, as these genes are capable of responding to daylight, and may be measuring the length of each day and producing an appropriate response. This process is very well understood in plants (where circadian genes control flowering time in spring), but there's actually a huge debate over it in insects that's been going on for almost a century. I'll only go into the details of that if people are really interested. :P

Slammed_z3118 karma

I am very interested in hearing of the circadian genes debate in insects if you still have the time. Thank you for such in depth answers.

mabolle35 karma

Alright, sure, here goes: a freestyle breakdown of the Bünning Hypothesis and subsequent controversy. Apologies if this gets messy, it's getting close to my bedtime.

So what we've got is two main time-keeping systems in plants and animals: the circadian clock, and photoperiodism. The circadian clock tells you what time of day it is; photoperiodism means a biological response to day length (or to changes in day length). Like mammals changing to winter fur or insects going into overwintering with short days, or plants flowering with long days. It makes sense to suggest that maybe these two systems are biologically connected. The first (or most famous) person to suggest this was a plant biologist named Bünning in the 1930s, although he published his ideas in German at the start of WW2, so it took a few decades for the idea to become more widely known.

Bünning's suggestion for how the connection would work goes like this: the circadian clock (which we now know is made up of a feedback loop of genes, but this was before anyone knew that) tells the body to produce some light-sensitive product at a certain time of night, which quickly gets broken down before morning. If this product gets hit by light, the organism proceeds to do some particular thing, like produce flowers. Because the light-sensitive phase occurs during the "night" phase of the biological clock, this response will only occur if the nights are short enough that the light-sensitive product has time to get hit by light before it decays. So now you've got a plant that only produces flowers under short nights, hence it only flowers when spring/summer comes. This later became known as the "external coincidence" model.

More people start thinking about this cool idea, and coming up with alternative ways that the circadian clock and photoperiodism might be connected. The "internal coincidence" model instead suggested that there might be two products, neither light-sensitive as such, but one produced at dawn and one at dusk. If dawn and dusk occur sufficiently close together, the two products interact to produce a long-day response. Some people also came up with ideas for how photoperiodism could work that didn't rely at all on the circadian clock — like maybe there's a light-sensitive component that decays during the night, but it doesn't get produced when the circadian clock says so; it just gets produced when dusk falls, regardless of what time the organism's internal clock thinks it is. This became known as the "hourglass model". This debate was now being fuelled — we're in, like, the 70s now — by the fact that people were conducting experiments to test the Bünning hypothesis, and getting weird and inconsistent results.

The main three groups that the question was being studied in were plants, mammals and insects. In plants, it eventually became clear that Bünning had been right: the circadian clock is indeed used to measure day length and control flowering accordingly, at least in the most well-studied model plants. In fact, from what I understand both external and internal coincidence methods are at play in controlling flowering time. Plant flowering genetics is really complex, and there are lots of redundancies, but plants have simple bodies that are easy to do experiments on, so the problem was tractable and we know lots about the genetic pathways involved now. I haven't read any of the mammal literature on this, but from what I hear it sounds like the Bünning hypothesis was borne out there, too.

But in insects, the debate just never settled! It's been going on for decades now, and people are still not in agreement over whether the circadian clock is involved in insect photoperiodism. Some species give results that suggest they use an internal coincidence mechanism, others something more like external coincidence, and still others don't behave as if the circadian clock is involved at all. Like, in a really cool experiment, it was shown that you can keep this species of moth under light that is so deeply toward the red end of the spectrum that their circadian clock doesn't respond to it — their daily activity rhythms completely break down — but they can still tell the difference between 12-hours and 14 hours of red light. But at the same time, evidence keeps pouring in from different insect species (including the butterflies in our lab!) that the genes involved in the circadian clock are responsible for generating differences in how insect populations control their overwintering response, which is a classic daylength-regulated trait. So do these genes just happen to have two completely different jobs? It wouldn't be the first time that happened, but it'd be a weird coincidence.

An idea that's becoming popular now is that the basic, ancestral insect daylength-measuring mechanism is based on the circadian clock machinery, but semi-independent to various degrees. This would explain why some species can still measure and respond to daylength even when their circadian clock is knocked out, but you get a more consistent response if their circadian clock is active.

Canbot56 karma

When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly it has to first dissolve into a protein goop, then it scienmagically turns into a butterfly. What would happen if you took half the goop from one chrysalis and mixed it with half the goop in another?

mabolle129 karma

To be clear, a pupa halfway through development contains two very different things: the famous "goop" — which is basically just materials left over from digesting larval tissues that the adult butterfly no longer needs — and the remaining living tissues, which will use the digested materials (along with fat reserves accumulated during larval development) to construct the adult body. The tissues which aren't broken down, but stay around for the whole metamorphosis process, include the brain, the respiratory system, several glands, and part of the gut. There are also the imaginal disks, which are bundles of stem cells that will grow into the adult insect's legs, facial features and reproductive organs.

So yeah, the "goop" itself isn't really alive; it's just a soup of raw materials. Move some of it into a different pupa, and it should be just as capable of using it as raw materials as its own "goop".

Maybe you think this is a bit of a cop-out, and you want to know what would happen if you took the living parts from inside a pupa and moved it into another pupa. The answer is that people have done this; transplantation is a classic (if disturbing) technique for investigating what parts of the body play what role during insect development. This even includes moving brains between pupae, and in some cases, transplanting organs between different species of insect. Insects don't have the kind of immune systems that vertebrates do, so they don't react as strongly to having foreign organs lying around inside them.

I haven't seen anything close to transplanting the entire left or right half (or top/bottom half) of a pupa's organs, though. It would be an incredibly fiddly and difficult operation to carry out, and I'm not sure what scientific question it would answer. But it seems possible that you could move quite a lot of stuff across and still produce an adult butterfly.

eliezere20 karma

Thank you for shedding light on that mysterious process!!! I can understand why the respiratory and digestive systems are conserved, because they are needed constantly during the process for oxygen and energy. I wonder why the brain is conserved and not regenerated from stem cells, especially when it will need all new connections.

mabolle29 karma

New connections are simply added, and the brain grows quite a lot from the larval stage to adulthood. But keeping the old parts of the brain around is pretty useful, because adult insects can actually remember information they picked up during childhood.

The brain is also the central control station for metamorphosis, and many of the key hormones that regulate the life cycle are secreted by the brain, or glands associated with it. (This is a big reason why entomologists have spent so much time transplanting brains around to begin with.)

spankleberry52 karma

My 10 year old is super interested in entomology. She doesn't want to pin the bugs, she has to much empathy, so she's putting for a digital collection. What do you wish you had done when you were her age? What other variations based on climate have you observed? She wants to know:.

  1. How long have you been studying bugs?
  2. Do you pin bugs? If so, do you feel bad about it?

mabolle68 karma

Hello to you and your awesome kid! Always so great to see enthusiasm for nature (especially insects, which obviously are the best).

I'm not big on childhood regrets, but I guess I wish I'd taken part in more nature-related activities. There's the Scouts, of course, but there are also more science-oriented youth organizations that provide courses and hikes and so on. It seems like a great way for a nature-interested kid to make like-minded friends.

I've been studying bugs in various contexts since about ten years ago, when I did my first insect diversity course at university. I did my bachelor's project on ticks and the bacteria that live inside them, and I've been researching butterflies for the past five years.

I do sometimes, but not often, pin bugs; I don't feel very bad about it. It's very hard to know for sure what it's like to be a different animal, but unlike larger animals like dogs or cats, it doesn't seem likely to me that insects are conscious or have feelings the way that humans do. All the same, I think it's good to respect any living thing and not kill them unnecessarily, so I understand anyone who doesn't want to pin bugs!

These days, I don't normally catch and kill bugs just to pin them, but I'll collect and pin bugs that I find dead, or that lived and died in the laboratory where we study them. I have two insect collections that I've mainly created as part as courses I've taken; one from Sweden and one from New Zealand. Eventually I'll donate them to science so that they can be kept at a museum or similar. Collections of preserved animals are very valuable to different kinds of research, because they let us see things like how populations have changed or moved around over time. (Digital collections are also valuable!)

ke_marshall19 karma

Also I'd suggest she gets involved with inaturalist! That's a great way to build a digital collection and they'll identify them for her :)

mabolle20 karma

Great idea — and look up whether there are any online services in your country for reporting insect observations online. Sweden has an excellent service like this that we actually use quite a lot for our research! I know Denmark has something similar, but I'm not sure how common it is.

diegstah38 karma

There has been a significant and visible reduction of insects in our neighborhood where I've been born and raised for over 20 years in the Philippines. Can you ELI5 the gravity of this situation and what I can do to help? Ilive in an unofficial retirement neighborhood and just can't go rogue-beekeeping. Thanks!

mabolle79 karma

Insect numbers are, unfortunately, falling all over the world. This includes both the number of individual insects and the diversity of insect species in a given area. A lot of this is due to pesticide use, but I think the biggest problem (like with most biodiversity issues) is habitat loss; people are just a little too keen to "develop" land without leaving natural habitat around for other species.

People who own land can do more than most; there are ways of gardening and management that leave more space for insects, like growing a little meadow, providing overwintering sites, and planting food plants that insects like. I think we need to generally change attitudes around how we think about the spaces around us. Too much public land management is about creating really bland and empty spaces (like that suburban desert, the lawn) where almost nothing can live. People think of an uncut roadside as "untidy", but if you look closer, it's a tiny patch of meadowland with space for wildflowers and butterflies.

The biggest difference that any one person can make for the environment is probably through voting and activism. The stuff we're doing to nature is systemic, which means that protecting nature is ultimately a political issue.

teaquiero10 karma

What comprises an overwintering site?

mabolle14 karma

Depends on the insect, but piles of rocks and especially dead trees can be very valuable. There are also man-made insect shelters people buy/make for their gardens, which can be quite decorative. There's more information about it here.

warriorofinternets37 karma

Why are butterfly scientists being murdered at that sanctuary in Mexico? Is this a common thing around the world?

mabolle76 karma

I'd actually not heard of this, just googled it now. Here's an article about it.

People are suspecting that they were murdered for protecting monarch butterfly overwintering sites from logging. I can't comment on whether this is true, but what I can definitely say is that it wouldn't be the first time. It's not specifically connected to butterflies: activists, journalists and researchers working with various environmental issues are murdered quite frequently in South and Central America. In some of these countries, powerful economic interests combined with dysfunctional justice systems mean that trying to protect nature can be a dangerous business. :(

Deathsnova18 karma

What career paths would you reccomend for someone who has just an undergraduate degree in Biology?

Is Biostatigraphy more related to biology or geology?

mabolle17 karma

I'd say a person who's got an undergraduate degree in biology and is interested in biostratigraphy specifically might want to look at master's programs in the geosciences. In my experience, palaeontology and related subjects tend to have closer academic ties to that part of the field than to pure biology.

Maybe ask around or look up people and labs doing biostratigraphical work that you find interesting, and inquire about program positions. (Hoping I answered this right; it sounded like you were interested in an academic career path in particular.)

joe1232117 karma

Did you choose that cover art, and if so what can you tell us about it?

Also congrats on finishing-don't sell out and go work for big butterfly!

mabolle21 karma

Yep, made it myself. It's a paraphrase of folio 32v, a.k.a. "Christ Enthroned", from the Book of Kells, a lavishly illustrated medieval manuscript from the 9th century. Every piece of the illustration refers to some part of the research — the butterfly species I worked with and the grass they eat; the life cycle and the changing seasons; figures showing some of the main results; a map of the study area; etc. It was a ton of fun to make.

Also congrats on finishing-don't sell out and go work for big butterfly!

I have no idea what this means but I WOULD NEVER DREAM OF IT. [thumps chest proudly]

tananacostia7 karma

As an artist, thank you for taking the aesthetics of your paper seriously. That illustration goes above and beyond--excellent work! I hope you keep it up with subsequent publications. Is there any way to embed the image in your Reddit post? Images speak louder than words :)

mabolle10 karma

Glad you liked it! You don't really get to make cover illustrations for most scientific publications, so I really went for it with the thesis. :)

You can't embed pictures on Reddit, no, but here's a direct link to the cover image.

Mordakkai9 karma

Why tf would someone attack your thesis?

mabolle14 karma

To steal my precious science!

F'real, though, they bring in an external researcher from the same field to read the thesis, critique it, and ask some tricky questions in front of a grading committee to make sure you have some idea of what you've done and why you've done it. It's the last step in getting a PhD, although the process looks very different from country to country.

EricT598 karma

In Spanish Butterfly is Mariposa. Did you know that?

mabolle15 karma

I did! I took Spanish in high school. :P

ameer4568 karma

Why Stockholm university taught in English not in Sweden language?!

mabolle28 karma

Bachelor's level courses are typically taught in Swedish here; in the natural sciences, the main language shifts to English at Master's level and higher. There are several reasons for this. Swedish is a fairly small language and science moves on quickly, both of which mean that relevant course literature at a higher level usually isn't available in Swedish. Also, courses taught in English are open to international students, who are common here and quite highly valued by our universities.

As for my PhD thesis, it's written in English because it's a research document, and scientific research is almost exclusively published in English so that scientists from all over the world can read one another's work and collaborate. I was required to include a summary of the results in Swedish, though.

fahzbehn8 karma

Was there any evidence that you found surprising while working on this thesis?

mabolle25 karma

Yes! I think the coolest thing we found was that one of our butterfly populations is entirely missing about 10% of a crucial gene that is part of the circadian clock. This is something we're working on following up currently. We don't really know what the missing part of the gene does, but because this gene has previously been tied to the control of the life cycle, we're currently trying to test whether it affects how fast the larvae develop, or pupal overwintering.

ItsaMe_Rapio7 karma

Are you applying to take over Unidan’s position? We’ve been without a butterfly scientist for a few years now

mabolle8 karma

I'm happy to be the resident Reddit biologist, but I don't plan on adopting his methods. :P

I'm also pretty sure Unidan never worked with butterflies.

PolloDiablo827 karma

Are butterfly's edible? And if so could you recommend a dish?

mabolle20 karma

I mean, don't eat any of the ones that are brightly black-and-orange-patterned, they're often toxic or at least taste bad.

I've tried some butterfly eggs out of sheer curiosity; they tasted like nothing much. Also, too small to make a satisfactory omelette.

waterloograd6 karma

Congratulations!!!! I will hopefully be defending my PhD on 3D and 4D modeling of complex geospatial systems in less than 2 years.

What was the first thing you did when you got home after your defense?

mabolle11 karma

Hey cool, hope your work is going well! What sorts of geospatial systems are you modeling? Climatological? Land use?

I didn't go home after my defense; I went to my office and pottered about uselessly for a few hours, then brought my family and friends out for a big party at a nearby venue, as is the tradition at my department. There was much dancing.

waterloograd3 karma

I'm focusing more on the methods than the subject. I'm looking at agent-based modeling and calibration/validation techniques. My last paper was about forest-fire smoke and how to spreads through the mountains of western Canada

mabolle3 karma

Cool! Agent-based modeling is fun, I dabble in it myself, although I'm not formally trained in it. :)

waterloograd3 karma

Ya, it is a lot of fun! It can be used for so many different applications. What software did you use? I used Repast Simphony with Java

mabolle3 karma

I used R, which is the only language I'm proficient in.

childeroland795 karma

What changes for you now that you’ve earned the degree?

mabolle6 karma

The main thing that changes is that I need to figure out the next step of my career! I've got a job lined up at the same biology department for much of this year, but beyond that I need to look at what's available. My long-term plan is to get a teaching degree; Sweden has a deficit of trained science teachers, and there's a fast-track program for people with PhDs in the sciences where you get paid during the training process. But I'll have a look around for jobs in science communication first, which is one of my passions, and what I was doing before I started my PhD position.

0991035015 karma

How do you feel about the insect Armageddon paper?

mabolle16 karma

There have been a number of big studies on the state of the global insect population in the last few years. I assume you're talking about this paper by Sánchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys from last year, which made big headlines. I guess I can say two things about it:

1) Insects (like most wild animals) are clearly in trouble worldwide; this is a huge problem, I'm glad people are concerned about it, and I'm glad it's getting more attention in research, in politics, and among the public.

2) As has been pointed out elsewhere, the Sánchez-Bayo & Wyckhuys paper in particular is a pretty questionable piece of science, which shouldn't have made it past peer review in its current form. The paper makes some elementary methodological mistakes, and uses very geographically biased sampling (mainly from Western countries), making it very hard to confidently draw the sweeping conclusions they do. It also famously makes the claim "insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades", which is pure nonsense. Not only does it not follow from their evidence, but I can't see any near-future scenario in insects as a whole go extinct. Yes, we're losing a lot of insect diversity, but honestly, if we completely mess up the planet, insects as a group have a greater chance of living on than human civilization does.

Norgeroff5 karma

What color is your toothbrush?

mabolle7 karma


Norgeroff3 karma

Eyyy, so is mine!

mabolle5 karma


lilmiles053 karma

Is it true butterflies can't poop and, ultimately, when they "die of old age" they really die of constipation? ...I swear I read something along those lines at a zoo when I was younger.

mabolle7 karma

Speaking as someone who's cleaned no small amount of butterfly poop out of our lab equipment... no, it's not true.

bananplant412 karma

Why is Svenska the greatest country in the world? Also my father was born there.

mabolle3 karma

*Sverige! Svenska is the name of the language. :D

ViolatorOfVirgins2 karma

Is the butterfly gender/sex set before it goes onto the cocoon stadium?

mabolle3 karma

A small correction: the teenage butterfly is called a pupa. A cocoon, meanwhile, is a house made of silk that some insects build around themselves before they turn into a pupa (or to spend the winter in). Many moths make cocoons, but butterflies typically don't.

But yeah, butterfly sex is genetically determined from the moment they're born. A male butterfly has two Z chromosomes; a female butterfly has a Z and a W chromosome (so essentially the opposite of how it works in mammals).

ViolatorOfVirgins2 karma

Oh, thanks. Are there any butterflies or moths (and what's the difference between them anyway), whose gender is determined by the environment while being in pupa (pupal stage?)/cocoon instead of 'just genetics'? Temperature of nest can affect the sex of crocodile offspring, also many fish are more changeable than other animals

mabolle5 karma

Nope, it's entirely genetic, at least for every lepidopteran (moth/butterfly) in which sex determination has been studied.

Evolutionarily speaking, butterflies are basically just a specialized subcategory of moth. Moths can look many different ways, but butterflies are recognizable by having clubbed antennae.

NSL10Legato2 karma

I heard there are butterfly forms that live longer than the „usual“ individual similar to a bee queen. Like a special form for long travel distances . My questions are: What are the main triggers for the adaptation? Can a specimen have more that two adaptive variations? (Are there general terms for forms with certain specialization?) Do variation have a lot of drawbacks? Are they trading different aspects of they fitness or do they produce “super forms” depending on resources?

mabolle6 karma

In some long-distance migrating butterfly species (like monarchs), the individuals that migrate are in reproductive diapause, which means their reproductive maturity has been put on pause until after migration (and/or after overwintering). This indeed makes them live longer than if they were reproductively active (5-6 times longer for diapausing monarchs). I assume this is what you've heard about!

Each individual butterfly can only either be a diapausing or a non-diapausing adult; which one they turn into depends on the conditions experienced during childhood. The most important factor controlling this tends to be the duration of daylight: larvae growing up under short autumn days tend to turn into diapausing adults. Decreasing food plant quality also has this effect, which makes sense; both factors signal that the season is ending and it's time to migrate south.

As for the pros and cons of either strategy, living longer before reproducing means you run a greater risk of dying of external factors before getting to pass on your genes, whereas skipping diapause and burning your reproductive resources over the course of a few weeks means you put all that risk into your offspring. If it's late in the season, those offspring may not find food.

asaleo2 karma

Which is your favourite kind of butterfly?

mabolle4 karma

The grayling! There's a population of them not far from where I live, and going to look for them is one of my favorite summer activities. They're kind of subtly patterned, but the colors (especially on a female) are really beautiful when you find them in real life. They're amazingly well camouflaged when they land on a rocky surface, until you come too close, and they flip up that bright orange warning patch on the forewing before taking off.

Honorable mention goes to the poplar admiral.

boing7572 karma

How do Monarchs find their way to summer grounds and back through multiple generations in one season?

mabolle3 karma

There's still a lot we don't know about this, but we do know how the north/south navigation works: they use the sun. A monarch migrating in the fall will fly towards the sun to get south — or rather, it will fly towards the sun if it's the middle of the day, keep the sun on its left-hand side in the morning, and on its right-hand side in the evening. They use biological clocks located in their antennae to know what time of day it is, and hence how to fly relative to the sun. (This works the same way in the spring, except the response is reversed; they fly away from the sun, to get north.)

This response is completely genetically programmed, and migration direction is cued in by environmental signals that say what time of year it is (and hence whether they should be migrating north, migrating south, or staying put). So any monarch born at any time of year knows roughly what to do without having to be taught.

oscorbiterereuskiu2 karma


mabolle7 karma

The D in PhD stands for doctor; formally, I am a Doctor of Animal Ecology. (It comes from Philosophiae Doctor in Latin.)

Thunberg has done more for the environmental movement, and hence for the future of this planet, than most other people in history. I think she's absolutely amazing. (Of course, I also think the environmental movement is about much more than one person. Greta's message is more important than Greta herself, which I'm pretty sure she'd tell you if you asked her.)

oscorbiterereuskiu2 karma


mabolle3 karma

Yes, I've gathered that she's unpopular in Russia. I think it's mainly because fossil fuels are very important to the Russian economy, and Putin and his government dislike the environmental movement for attacking the use of fossil fuels.

Yes, a PhD opens up for teaching at university. It is also a necessary degree for anyone who wants to continue working in academic research — in a sense, a PhD is a license to do research. But it also signals to any future employer that a person 1) knows a lot about their field, and 2) can process a lot of information and do a lot of hard work. Most people who have PhDs don't stay in the academic field, but it can still really boost their CV.

PancakesandMaggots2 karma

1st year PhD student here. Any tips on studying for comps?

mabolle4 karma

Yeah, no, sorry, we don't have those here. D:

We have a half-time seminar, which is sort of a mini-thesis defense on whatever work has been completed halfway through the PhD time, and a certain number of required course credits. But there aren't really any examinations (besides the thesis defense itself) in a Swedish PhD program.

halfbloodprince072 karma

As you have mentioned > local climate

Is climate change real?

If so, how bad is it?

Do you believe, we as a species would eventually perish, like Dinosaurs did?

I'm sorry if I sound rude. So, apologies in advance. :)

mabolle3 karma

It's definitely real, and it's pretty damn bad, sorry. :(

It's also kind of a big topic, and although I work with stuff related to the climate (e.g. its effects on insect populations), I'm not an expert in the climate as such. I can recommend NASA's webpage on it for a good overview.

SanicTheDorito12072 karma

What do butterflies eat?

mabolle2 karma

They eat leaves! That is to say, they eat leaves when they're caterpillars, which is when they consume the majority of all the food they'll eat in their lives. Each species has a particular set of plants that they can eat the leaves from. For some species it's a small set of plants; for some it's a large set.

An adult butterfly can't chew, only drink (its mouth is a long straw), so they eat mainly sugary water — either nectar, tree sap, rotting fruit, or the sugary poop of plant-sucking insects (which is poetically known as honeydew, and can be found lying around on and under trees). Some tropical species also eat quite a lot of pollen. When they need to get some more minerals in their diet, some butterflies will also seek out animal poop, or even puddle water! Some species, like the poplar admiral, are apparently attracted to the smell of cheese, so make of that what you will. And yes, there are even some butterflies that have been documented to drink blood out of wounds on larger animals.

But yeah, mostly sugar water for adult butterflies. In the lab, we mostly feed them sugar solution from sponges.

Animalion2 karma

I know the concept of subspecies is somewhat controversial in the scientific community. So, I am curious when doing your research, on the speckled wood butterfly, did you only focus on Pararge aegeria as a whole (i.e., one species)? Or did you look at potential differences/results between the multiple subspecies?

mabolle3 karma

Oh fun, a speckled wood question!

It's actually been shown with genetic data that the traditionally recognized subspecies of P. aegeria are not genuine evolutionarily separated units, so they're not mentioned so much in the literature anymore. All of our sampling was done in Scandinavia; those populations were traditionally considered to be part of Pararge aegeria tircis, as they have the brown base coloration (rather than orange, as in southern Europe). But I have colleagues who've worked on populations farther south, and I've referred to the literature on the species as a whole when writing my papers.

PugBoi20082 karma

Are you swedish? Olle is a very swedish name.

mabolle4 karma

I am so Swedish dude, you wouldn't believe

frigyeah2 karma

How did you not die of boredom?

mabolle2 karma

I am very interested in biology. :P

During the most boring parts of the work (which mostly consisted of feeding grass to thousands of caterpillars), I listened to a lot of podcasts.

arvis032 karma

Butterflys open their eyes and sleep is it true?

mabolle3 karma

Like all insects, butterflies lack eyelids, so yes, they do everything with their eyes open.

blahgblahblahhhhh2 karma

Do bees fly?

mabolle2 karma

No, they simply jump up and down, and manipulate the footage by cutting out the frames where they're in contact with the ground.

c4r0n1x1 karma

I feel like I've seen way less butterflies now than ten years ago, and before that the same. Growing up in the 90s butterflies were everywhere. I feel like I barely see them anymore. Is this just my brain ignoring something, or has there been a largely noticable drop in butterfly population? I talk about this fairly often and it concerns me on some weird level

mabolle2 karma

No, you're probably not imagining it. Surveys have found that the numbers of insects around us are generally lower now than a few decades ago.

The main reason for this is simple: they don't have as many places to live. Urban and suburban development continues to encroach on natural habitats, and often little space is left for the kind of habitat butterflies in particular tend to need: grasslands, open woodland and especially meadow land.

If anyone reading this owns property: I know Western culture is obsessed with well-manicured lawns and you risk getting complaints from neighbors, but please consider letting part of your garden grow a little wild. Maybe look up some butterfly-friendly flowers and food plants that can be grown in your area. We need to give wild insects a chance if we want to keep them around.

ALittlePeaceAndQuiet1 karma

What do you wish you'd been asked about that never came up?

mabolle2 karma

Haha, there's a story there. The opponent (an insect researcher from the United States) emailed me a couple weeks before the defense to ask me for some data figures, and he threw something like "by the way, just so you know, I'm gonna critique you a bit harder on your third and fourth papers — the first two have already gone through peer review, and so they're obviously a bit more polished." He really didn't have to tell me that, so that was nice of him.

Cut to the day of the defense, and the guy apparently got a little stressed out about going over time. Technically he could've kept going for at least another hour (I've seen that happen), but he'd gotten the impression he should really be strict about the schedule. So after spending lots of time quizzing me on papers 1 and 2, he basically breezed over papers 3 and 4 and went straight to his list of general questions. So I'm still kind of wondering what he was going to grill me on re: the last two papers.

meredith-ryder1 karma

Can bugs or any worms or insects live and breed inside a human body for years or decades? My boyfriend is convinced that he has had this problem for years. Help!!!

mabolle3 karma

Insects, no. But yes, there are worms that live inside of people. They're not very common in developed countries, nor are they usually very dangerous. Tell him to go talk to a doctor if he's having symptoms he's worried about. :)

bewildered_bean1 karma

This is by far one of my favorite proof pictures

mabolle2 karma

I'm glad I'm doing something right

Kytothelee1 karma

I like to raise Monarchs during the summer, we typically find the caterpillars all over the place where I am in Wisconsin. I got into this because of their population declining and there's a fairly large group in Wisconsin that does the same thing. Once they are ready to fly, we release them. My question is, are we really helping by doing this or should I not do this anymore?

mabolle2 karma

Difficult to say whether it helps; depends on what the reason is for their decline in your particular area. Because North American monarchs are migratory, their success depends on threats and resources all along their migratory route. On the other hand, I'm hard pressed to see how what you're doing could be doing them any harm.

I'd encourage you to try rearing some other butterflies, though! Monarchs get a lot of attention and it's great that people get invested in them, but many other species are also easy and interesting to rear, and there may be more of them in your area that could benefit from breeding initiatives. There are historical examples of people successfully restoring threatened local butterfly populations.

leiferslook1 karma

Okay this is a bit random but since you're a butterfly scientist, I have to ask. There's often odd names associated with certain groups of animals like a "murder of crows", I've read the term for a group of butterflies is a "kaleidoscope of butterflies", have you ever used this term or is that not something scientists do in the butterfly community? I'm mostly asking because I'm obsessed with kaleidoscopes : )

mabolle3 karma

I have never, ever heard a butterfly scientist use this term.

I kind of strongly suspect some of these "a [thing] of [animals]" expressions were made up by people for fun, with no actual history of use. Not that there's anything wrong with that. My favorite is "a quiver of arrow worms".

Bashamo2571 karma

Any tips? I'm defending my astrophysics masters in like 3 weeks but am still scrambling to get my presentation slides and data all together in a coherent format.

mabolle2 karma

Yeah, hmm... budget for one minute per slide, is my main recommendation. If you find yourself with significantly more than that, there's probably something you need to cut. In my experience, the best presentations I've given are the ones where I gave myself the least amount of stuff to say.

jimboslice86-13 karma

How does it feel to have gotten a PhD on something useless, so that you can complain about how indebted you are your whole life?

mabolle12 karma

I'm lucky enough to live in a country where higher education is affordable. My student debt is on track to be paid off by the end of this year. :P

jimboslice86-12 karma

How about the first part of the question? Other than teaching other grad students to get PhD's on this topic, ie academic pyramid scheme, how does your work potentially impact society?

mabolle10 karma

In a pyramid scheme, 99% of the participants get nothing for their trouble. Learning stuff about the world is pretty valuable, if you ask me and many other people. :P

But okay, applications... Basic research like what I do at the moment is pretty curiosity-driven, and the idea is to just find out interesting things and leave it to the future whether anything immediately practical comes of it. There are many things in nature that were interesting but pointless when discovered but became hugely important later, like the phenomenon of electric induction, which is key to lots of our everyday electronics.

In terms of what we already know is important, insects constitute something like 80-90% of the world's species and are a huge component of global ecosystems. Some of them pollinate our crops; some of them eat our crops; some of them protect our crops; some of them spread diseases. In all of these cases, understanding their life cycles and how they relate to the climate is relevant, especially in these days when the climate is changing so fast. Just to take an example, my first paper directly relates to the kinds of models people use to try to forecast insect outbreaks and predict changes in insect seasonality over time.