A Conversation with Prof. Emeritus Darryl Gwynne

Professor Emeritus Darryl Gwynne


What made you decide to go into Biology?

My research interests over the past four decades or so has been trying to understand sexual selection. Darwin's ideas about sexual selection and in particular how sexual selection produces sex differences in the animal kingdom and using insects to to do experiments and observations to understand that theory and to test that theory. I've been a been interested in natural history in the natural environment ever since I was a small child. 
Growing up in England, I was intrigued by insects. I spent a lot of summers in my my grandmother's country garden in Somerset in the southwest of England, and was really intrigued by the insects I found in the in the garden. And I used to keep some of those pets. I had beetles that had grasshoppers and I was really interested in watching insects. 
And then later on, we emigrated to Canada, and I was a bug collector in high school. Bit of a nerd with the insects. And I had an exceptional high school teacher, not my biology teacher, but my English teacher. And he took an interest in every child, every student in his class and their what turned them on, what their interests were. And for me, he brought me books on the on the scientific study of animal behavior. And when I read those books, I realized that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to use a scientific study of animal behavior and actually study insects in that way. And then, of course, university rolled around. So it was a natural thing for me to go into ecology area of biology. 

How did you land on studying sexual selection?

It was during my undergraduate, I was lucky enough to get to research in my fourth year summer of my fourth year particularly in the lab of Professor Glenn Morris, who still here and on campus is an emeritus professor and Glenn's main research interests were with sound communication and insects. So he studied cricket relatives called katydids. And it was during that time in his lab that I started reading about sound communication in insects and how insects attracted their mates. 
And there were some really intriguing research published about that time, how certain aspects of insect biology could be used to test some of Darwin's ideas and others ideas about why the sexes in the animal kingdom are so different. Okay, so why why do I do most of my research on Katydids, which are a group of insects related to grasshoppers? They're actually very closely related to crickets. Everybody knows what crickets are the katydids. I got introduced to in the lab of my professor, Glenn Morris. He studied sound communication, and what I was most interested in was some peculiarities that I'd seen when I watched these katydids meet in my own garden, some peculiarities of mating. The males actually fed their mates. The males produce a an enormous glandular secretion that's so obvious at the end of mating that they hand over to the females and the females. I was intrigued by that. And there was this aspect of sexual selection called parental investment theory, where when males invest in their mates heavily, such as these katydids we're doing their often very interesting vocal organisms to study, to understand sexual differences. 
And so katydids that appealed to me as maybe the ideal subjects to go out into nature and, and use them in experiments and observations to actually test some of these ideas about how sexual differences via sexual selection evolved.

Tell us about Gwynne's Katydids

I ended up in Australia for a postdoctoral research in the early 1980s and during that time there I actually had to, I found the fauna, the actual katydid for there was virtually unknown. There were only a few species named and I was lucky enough to team up with a taxonomist at the Australian National Insect Collection who I collected for. He would come west because I was based at the University of Western Australia in Perth. He would come west and we'd work together go into the field and collect and we ended up collecting lots of new species and even new genera and now a genus in the taxonomy world, the naming of animals world, a genus can consist of a number of species and so a number of just a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be to have several katydids named after me all in one genus, and there I think they're called Gwynn's Katydids, but they have a particular scientific name Gwynnagraecia viridis, which is named after me, which was a bit of an honor. But, but it was it was, I think also a bit of a reward for the fact that I collected so many new species when I was out there.

Tell us about your 2011 Ig Nobel Prize

So I need to step back a bit and describe what it was like for me to go to Western Australia and to go into the bush surrounding the city of Perth and even within the city of Perth, because it was a big area of natural bushland actually in the city itself. And it was such an amazing experience forRentz & Gwynne Ig Nobel a naturalist of sex to encounter so many insects, and my mission was to find some ideal katydid species in order to do my experiments and do my observations with to test the theory that I mentioned earlier and that involved, as I also mentioned earlier, encountering lots of new species. 
But the way I was doing that was because they sing, the males sing and attract mates. I was basically walking around at night listening for singing insects. And the other way I would do that with David Rentz, my colleague from the museum in Canberra who was naming New Species. We would go out and basically do expeditions into the Australian bush and collect it and I collect these species and everything else. 
So is both listening and also watching for these species that I was able to find ideals species to work on. And I found some really interesting species that ended up doing experiments with that turned out really ideal for testing some of Darwin's ideas and others ideas about sexual selection. But in the process of doing that, I got into some really interesting side projects that were interesting, very interesting stories about insect sex and the Beatles and The Bottle was one of them. 
When I was traveling around with with David Rentz, we would work at night walking around in the bush collecting Katydids and then we would sleep, obviously. And then in the morning we would we would hang out on the campsite drinking coffee before we moved on to our next site. And one of those mornings walking along, we were a desert road near our campsite. There were a whole bunch of shiny, obviously discarded beer bottles along the roadside, and every single one of them had a large male of what's now known as jewel beetles, the cold jewel beetles, but very large, shiny brown males and I could see as a person who was interested in insect sex that these males were trying to mate with the beer bottles. So we did a quick, quick and dirty experiment where we cleaned out bottles to make sure that it wasn't the alcohol that the Beatles were being attracted to, put them along the roadside and quickly. They attracted males who wouldn't least they would just stay on the back of this bottle with their little insect penis inverted and try and mate with the beer bottles. 
And so David and I wrote that up, and it became an article called Beetles on the Bottle. And it described this behavior in terms of sexual how it addressed sexual selection theory even, and made a big hit beer and sex. It made a big hit in the Australian press. And eventually about 20 years later, I think it was 2007, David and I were awarded the IG Nobel Prize, which is presented every year at Harvard University in various areas, ours was in biology. It was the IG Nobel Prize for, for biology. And it was some it was for the study. And the idea of the IG Nobel Prize, of course, was its research that first makes you think and makes you laugh at the same time. But I should say that while I was doing this, this scoping out looking for different kinds of katydids species and listening to animal sound, I made up a couple of other really interesting discoveries as well, and that included finding it was a katydid at first, but it turned out to be a little tiny moss singing from the tops of trees using pure ultrasound was way above human hearing  but I had a little bat detector where I could listen to these things, where I'd detect these things. And this moth we discovered was actually rubbing its genitalia on its on its body to make the sound. I also discovered a spider that was singing on a leaf that I thought was a grasshopper. When I got close, I realized this spider was singing to attract mates And that spider is now turned out to be it's now labeled the loudest spider on earth because of this discovery. 
And then later on, we discovered even a small cricket that was singing very actively and mating very, very frequently. And later on, I had a graduate student when I actually came to University of Toronto, Mississauga, this campus, to to become a professor. I had a graduate student supervised with Median and brought a named Gillian Layered, and she did research on this species, and she discovered that single males could mate up to six times in a single meeting and the research was published. 
And it's now one of the Guinness Book of Records for the most frequent sex in a cricket When I was a first year professor, I think I think the one thing I wish I'd known, which I would have incorporated much earlier into my teaching, especially teaching first year students because I spent the first ten years or so here teaching the first year biology course here. 

What do you know now that you wish you'd known as a first-year professor?

I think the thing I wish I'd known would be how important critical thinking skills are for students, and I would work much more many more exercises, discuss much more research that really focused on getting students to critically think about issues.

How do a biologist and a modern dancer come together?

Peggy Baker is a very well known Toronto modern dance - modern dancer, and she had seen some videotapes of insect behavior and insect movement. And she designed a new dance routine based on insect movement and insect behavior. And she got in touch with me as an expert in insect behavior, which is all about movement, and asked me if I would go and view these tapes that she started with and actually go and see the rehearsals for this dance and to see what I thought of it and if I could give her any critical feedback. So I ended up thinking this is going to be kind of boring, but it ended up really, really interesting. I found it so intriguing to see humans dancing, replicating the movements of insects and so it ended up it was presented, I think, on the Harbourfront, the dance. And I went down for several nights and I would start the program with a little introductory thing about insects and insect behavior out in the foyer. And then obviously we moved in and saw these amazing dance routines.

What is the biggest change you have seen in your field of study from when you began until now?

So I think the biggest change in especially the methodology used in my field, sexual selection, has been the advent of molecular biology and its use by ecologists and evolutionary biologists and in particular for people studying sexual selection. It's very important in studies of sexual selection. One of the focal observations one can make in nature or doing experiments is, is to look at mating success classically of males because they're the ones that are striving to get more mates than females. But mating success is what we use to use what the new molecular markers allowed us to do was actually assess what's called evolutionary fitness of males in a very different way, in a better way, and in a much improved way by actually determining their paternity. So in recent years, my lab has used molecular markers of individual males, even in the wild, to figure out which males are most successful in getting most females inseminated. And that's a really, really important component and methodology to really testing some of Darwin's ideas about sexual selection.

Tell us about your field research. Any particularly challenging or rewarding moments?

I think field research in general is often very challenging because you have to put up with often terrible weather. And much of my research, my field research in the last ten years or so, actually more a couple of decades or so has been in New Zealand and you can see it's a very, very interesting place to go because you can start off the evening with beautiful weather and have a storm front move in, and so that's probably the most challenging thing to do is actually dealing with the physical environment.
In terms of rewards I think it would be my first field trip to study Katydids and that was in North America with this idea in mind that when males invest heavily in their mates that it could absolutely have real significance for sex differences because you could get a reversal in the mating roles when males are rewarding females at mating with a very highly nutritious food as these katydids do. 
You can actually get a reversal in the in the matting roles where the females will compete for males, a very male like behavior in the animal kingdom and the males would actually do this. The typical female behavior in the animal kingdom sit back and choose. And that's what I predicted. And I ended up going into areas of Utah and Colorado looking for a thing called Mormon cricket, which is a katydid, and my very first day in the field - these are these are active during the day - I actually saw exactly what I predicted. I saw females competing aggressively as they ran towards singing males, and I saw males rejecting females. And I it was such an unbelievably rewarding thing to see my prediction come true in nature. And I was so thrilled with that. 

Any memorable stories you'd like to share about your former students?

So thinking back about graduate students and fun in the field, I think some of the most interesting times through with one of my PhD students, Clint Kelly is now a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. And Clint worked on a group of insects related to Katydids called Weta and their found in New Zealand and they're amazing beasts because they can come in enormous size. 
Some of the largest, heaviest insects in the animal kingdom are WETA called giant Weta and Clint and I, Clint with his Ph.D. research, and even when he finished his PhD, he worked on a number of species of Weta, including his giant Weta, and Clint had found an ideal study site, Maud island in the Marlborough sounds of the northern end of the South Island, New Zealand, the famous wine producing district of New Zealand. And he found this wonderful island run by the Department of Conservation. And we were so lucky to be able to end up working on this island, on these giant insects and their relatives called Weta. And the island was a conservation island and it had a couple of highly endangered birds, one called the Takahashi, but the one that comes to mind as the most fun and the most stories we can we can now tell about was this was a was the world's only flightless parrot called a cockapoo. 
And there were a couple of kakapo living on the island wild oak. And these these are highly endangered. There's only even today, there's only a couple of hundred specimens left, and no one on the island had a named Sirocco. And he had been raised by humans because he'd been very ill as a young bird. And so he was very familiar, he'd imprinted himself on humans. He was more attracted to humans almost than his own, than his own species. And one of his peculiarities was his sex drive with humans and he would crawl up your leg and try and get to your head. Luckily, we'd been warned because if he got to your head, he would stick his claws into the side of your of your head and he'd try and mate with the top of your head. 
And a number of people actually ended up in this unfortunate position, actually getting quite scratched up. And one of the most famous ones is a TV show called Last Chance to See, starring the famous English actor and comedian and and Stephen Fry. And he's the guy he did that series with, Last Chance to See one of them focused on the kakapo. 
The same individual Sirocco that we knew on this island ended up on the I think it was the cameraman's head trying to mate with his head. So we were warned about this animal. And so the fun was and some great stories we still tell was having to go out at night to do our research and have to put up with Sirocco occasionally coming over, climbing up our legs and having to deal with this. 
And it was fun. Of course, it was a distraction for the research, but great fun in terms of, you know, the, the owl, that privilege we had to actually encounter is such an endangered species like that and to have him be interested in us. So when faced with the question of whether I enjoy research or teaching more, I think they both bring their different rewards. 

What did you enjoy more, research or teaching?

I think as professors get into a teaching research tenure track position in the first place, because we are turned down by research because we got, you know, really interested in a research question or a set of research questions. So my driving force, I think as with most biologists, most researchers or most professors would be would be the research aspect. It springs so many rewards. But I think the teaching also obviously brings rewards as well. Maybe not the heavy doses of lots of marking of exams but getting to know students, getting to know, especially students that you can recruit into your lab to do undergraduate research with you and get to know them and see how their careers turned out. I think that that is the biggest part of the most rewarding part of teaching for me is it's that aspect.

What are you going to miss most about academia?

I don't intend to give up academia completely. I, I keep telling people I'm going to walk the way for a few more years yet, and luckily I'm still going to be teaching my, my fourth year course here and I'm going to be doing research with, with grad students, etcetera, etcetera, an excuse. But in terms of what I miss most, I think, I think interaction with colleagues on a daily basis that was that's really rewarding discussing not just research and biology, but the issues of the day.

How is your book going?

I've been working on a book. It's a popular book. I wrote a book about Katie. It's more of a technical book almost 20 years ago now. And for the last ten years, I've been working on a book set in the Credit River Valley, which is the river that runs through our campus. And I'm lucky enough that it's the same river that runs right behind my house where I live, up near Terracotta in Ontario. And partly research because some of our research is based right near my home especially some really interesting research on dance flies, but partly my research and partly researched stories from other researchers as well have have revealed some really intriguing tales to do with the very theme of my main research, which is males feeding their mates or providing some kind of nurturing for their mates to their offspring. And so anyway, I'm writing a popular book. It's focused on basically the areas around my home and the different species working away through the season at these different insect species and the various episodes about their sex lives where males are demonstrating some aspect of nurturing their offspring or their mates and also demonstrating in experiments or observations some aspects of Darwin's ideas about sexual selection. 
But the important thing it's it's a popular book that hopefully anybody can read and understand.

What are your plans for life after being a beloved faculty for so many moons?

I think retirement opens up lots of time, lots more time than I've had in the past. And my wife, Sarah and I are really big, we're big hikers and we've really enjoyed with my excursions to New Zealand and her family, indeed, Sarah was raised in New Zealand and her summer family is still there, we've enjoyed some of the famous hiking trails in New Zealand. We want to keep doing that. And we've also been doing hiking in England. We were both born in the south west of England, even though we met in Western Australia, both born in the same city, Bristol, and we've made it a point over the last few years to return to our ancestral sites, if you like, in the south west of England, in South Wales for me, and actually do hikes that are through country that that our ancestors came from. 
And so hiking speak on the list in terms of what we plan to do. And also, of course, big on the list is grandchildren. We recently got to our first two grandchildren and through our son and his wife, Lydia, and that came right in the start of COVID and as we retired. So we've got more time now, and we spend we spend quite a bit of time with our with our grandchildren.