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As a child, Satoshi Tajiri could often be found in the countryside around Tokyo. He felt more at home there than in the hustle and bustle of the Japanese metropolis. Among the trees, Tajiri hunted for insects, which he then added to his collection. When the flora and fauna surrounding Tokyo began to disappear at an increasing rate, Satoshi decided that he did not want to lose the pleasure of finding and collecting critters. He developed Pokémon, a computer and card game about fantasy creatures with an ability to evolve. Tajiri’s world has much in common with that of IBED researcher Emily Burdfield-Steel: a love of insects, an interest in evolution and definitely Pokémon.

At IBED, the British-born assistant professor of Chemical Ecology is researching two types of social communication in insects: sexual communication and anti-predator communication.

How attract a male moth?

Briefly put, sexual communication is about how a particular female ensures the right male finds his way to her. And if you think that this is difficult enough for people, the process is at least as complicated among insects.

Burdfield-Steel’s research centres on pheromones – a signalling substance that one individual emits to communicate with another – in two closely related species of moths found in North and Central America. ‘This is a species of moth where the females know exactly how to attract males of their own species while simultaneously repelling males of other species,’ she explains.

‘Which is really quite clever! She uses different pheromone blends for different situations: one for when only potential dreamboats from her own species are around, and another blend that includes an extra substance which attracts the right male, but also repels the Mr Wrongs from the related species.’

But just how easy is it for moths of this species to create such a blend? One of the questions that Burdfield- Steel’s analysis in the IBED lab seeks to answer is why the female moth does not simply use the blend with the additional substance every time.

Emily Burdfield-Steel
Emily Burdfield-Steel

Remarkable bug barf

In addition to sexual communication between insect species, Burdfield- Steel also researches anti-predator communication, particularly that which relies on colour and chemical protection.

For example: together with a fellow Australian researcher, she is examining the behaviour of the mountain katydid (Acripeza reticulata), which lives at high altitudes in Australia. The most remarkable thing about this species of grasshopper is that it ‘vomits’ toxins when it comes across a potential predator looking for a meal. The question Burdfield-Steel and her colleagues are asking is what cocktail of chemical ingredients makes this vomit so intense that it causes predators to flee.

And, as it happens, she has come to the right place at the Science Park – one of only a handful of labs equipped to analyse this grasshopper vomit. As Burdfield- Steel notes: ‘The equipment is on hand, but so are the people who know exactly what they are doing.’

She found this out when, while still affiliated with a Finnish university, she attended a symposium in Groningen. There, Burdfield-Steel spoke with Astrid Groot, professor of Population & Evolutionary Biology, and learned about a system for interaction between species. She was immediately enthusiastic.

Of Groot, Burdfield-Steel says: ‘I was especially impressed by the level of expertise. Her group has a detailed understanding of the chemical composition of the pheromone blend these moths deploy. That made me interested in working with her. Which is why I’m glad that I was able to relocate to Amsterdam a few years ago. The department I work in is open in nature and there is a lot of interaction because my colleagues are interested in one another’s work. The IBED also encourages us to work together, both within the institute and the Faculty and beyond.’

Insects and the city

In Amsterdam, Burdfield-Steel set up an interesting project that explores how urbanisation influences the social interaction between members of the same species, in this case a diurnal moth called the six-spot burnet. For example, how does air pollution affect the communication system of these moths? Moths living in rural areas have much less pollution to contend with. And how does that same pollution impact their communication with predators?

She explains: ‘As humans, we create “green corridors” such as parks, even though we aren’t certain whether particular organisms can survive there. Can these species survive in the city? Will they be able to find food? Will these green urban areas become a new habitat for them – or a trap? Will they be eaten by predators?'

'There are so many different aspects to urbanisation and insect communication. Birds behave differently in urban areas than elsewhere, for instance. I have a system that enables me to study all kinds of communication in a holistic way. Since insects are indispensable to our survival, it is crucial that we learn more about them.’

Attention to the world outdoors

The attentive reader is probably wondering when Pokémon will finally show up in this story. As it happens, the Japanese video and card game is one of the tools Burdfield-Steel uses to convey her enthusiasm for evolution and for science in general to a new generation. She does this by visiting primary and secondary schools.

‘I think this is important because we need people who are scientifically literate, who have a basic understanding of how information should be interpreted,’ she says. ‘Science is not some mysterious thing; it helps you to understand the world around you. In my experience, the younger the children, the more open they are. Having worked with four and five year olds, I was impressed by how small children are both willing and able to understand quite difficult concepts. When they are young, they see no difference between fun and learning.’

To reach those children, and older people as well, Burdfield-Steel developed an interactive game in which she uses Pokémon cards to explain how evolution works.

‘Children know absolutely everything about Pokémon. So I ask them to make an evolution tree using a set of cards. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer because everyone has their own theory of how the creatures evolved. That makes it fun to see a group of children using the same cards to create some very different evolutionary trees. Sometimes they make a model based on a certain type of Pokémon, like a water type, and sometimes it’s based on the number of legs and/or ears the Japanese characters have.’

In this way, Burdfield-Steel is actually doing the same thing Satoshi Tajiri did for many generations of children in the 1990s, and – with the advent of Pokémon GO – for adults in and outside Japan as well: getting them excited about evolution and small creatures.

Emily Burdfield-Steel has been assistant professor of Chemical Ecology at IBED since 2019. She obtained a PhD in behavioural ecology and sexual selection at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and subsequently held positions at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and Macquarie University, Australia.

Annual review Faculty of Science 2020

This interview was also published in the annual review of the University of Amsterdam Faculty of Science. Read our annual review for news and background on teaching and research at the Faculty of Science in 2020, including interviews with lecturers, researchers and students, facts and figures on enrolment and staff news about organisation developments and our valorisation activities.