Organisms exist within communities of other interacting species, but our knowledge of the forces shaping the emergence and fates of these ecological relationships remains fragmentary. The Parker lab is focused on understanding how the evolved, underlying architecture of the biosphere came into existence. We use rove beetles (Staphylinidae) as our exploratory system: a megadiverse radiation of 64,000 small insects comprising the animal kingdom's largest family. The majority of rove beetles are free-living predators that have proliferated extensively in litter and soil habitats throughout Earth's terrestrial ecosystems. From this ancestral condition, numerous lineages have evolved into symbiotic organisms, specialized for life inside the complex societies of ants. Such species embody evolution in the extreme, with dramatic changes in social behavior and chemical communication that enable them to assimilate into the social fabric of host colonies. The widespread, convergent evolution of this symbiosis provides a unique paradigm for understanding both how and why novel interspecies relationships emerge during evolution. Work in our laboratory is highly integrative, combining genomics and cell biology with chemical ecology and behavioral neuroscience in an effort to understand all facets of these beetles and their interactions, from both mechanistic and evolutionary perspectives.
Watch Joe Parker discuss his lab's research on social and symbiotic evolution as part of Caltech's Watson Lecture series.