Hughes Lab


We take an integrative and comparative approach to our work, utilising a wide range of techniques to carry out hypothesis-driven experimental biology. Some of the methods we use include:

Fieldwork. Much of our research involves an element of fieldwork, either collecting data directly in the field, or collecting samples or insects to work with back in the lab. Our principal fieldsites for social insect research include Gamboa and Barro Colorado Island in Panama, and Juiz de Fora and Campo Formoso in Brazil, while our white shark research takes place in Gansbaai, South Africa.

Behavioural observations. It's amazing how much you can learn if you take the time to watch animals. If you can couple targeted observations with hypothesis-driven experimental manipulations then you can learn even more. Some of our behavioural work is done with the aid of video playback and purpose-built tracking software, and some is done in real-time. 

Molecular ecology. It's hard to underestimate the power of molecular techniques for allowing new insights into the evolution and behaviour of organisms. We use microsatellite genotyping to work out the genetic structure of social insect colonies, PCR, sequencing and qPCR to detect, identify and quantify symbiont infections, qPCR again to quantify the expression of genes of interest, and 'next-generation' metagenomic sequencing to profile symbiont communities.

Microbiology and parasitology. We use experimental infections with model parasites like Metarhizium to investigate the resistance of insects to disease and the dynamic interactions within the host between parasites, serial passage experiments to investigate parasite evolution, and a variety of measures to quantify the immunity of our host animals.

Comparative analysis. Experimental methods can provide a focused understanding of a subject in a particular study species, but an alternative approach is to zoom out and examine what's going on at a wider phylogenetic scale to understand the evolution of traits. The abundant data on social insects makes them an excellent group for this approach. We combine large scale comparative analyses with the collection of data from targeted species to allow comparative insights.

Chemical ecology. Unlike humans, social insect communication is based upon chemical cues. To understand their organisation, you need to understand their 'language', and for that we use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify the chemicals that they use to communicate.