Corrie Moreau to Speak at UC Davis on 'The Evolution of Ants'

For several weeks now, we've been watching colonies of carpenter ants in a Vacaville, Callif. park.

They draw the attention of curious kids--some poke them with a stick, stomp on them, or race their bicycles over them. Some peer into the holes, trying to see the insects inside.

When Corrie Moreau was a young girl, she no doubt was one of the kids who peered inside.

She's now a noted evolutionary biologist and entomologist  (specialty myrmecology, the study of ants).

Moreau will present a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar,  "Piecing Together the Puzzle to Understand the Evolution of the Ants: Macroevolution to Microbiomes"  from 4:10 to 5 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 15 in 122 Briggs Hall, Kleiber Hall Drive.

Moreau is the Moser Professor of Biosystematics and Biodiversity, Departments of Entomology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell, University, Ithaca, N.Y. and the curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection.

"Moreau and colleagues were the first to establish the origin of the ants at 140 million years ago using molecular sequence data (40 million years older than previous estimates), and that the diversification of the ants coincided with the rise of the flowering plants (angiosperms)," according to an entry in Wikipedia. "In addition, Moreau and Charles D. Bell showed that the tropics have been and continue to be important for the evolution of the ants. Moreau and colleagues have demonstrated the importance of gut-associated bacteria in the evolutionary and ecological success of ants through targeted bacterial and microbiome sequencing, including showing that bacterial gut symbionts are tightly linked with the evolution of herbivory in ants."

Her honors are many and widespread. In 2018 she was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Also in 2018, she was featured in National Geographic as a "Woman of Impact." In 2015, she was included in "15 Brilliant Women Bridging the Gender Gap in Science."

A native of New Orleans, Moreau holds degrees (bachelor and master's)  from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in biology from Harvard University (2007). At Harvard, she studied with major professors E. O. Wilson and Naomi Pierce. Wilson featured her in his 2013 book, Letter to a Young Scientist.

"There was no bravado in Corrie, no trace of overweening pride, no pretension,"  Wilson wrote. "The story of Corrie Saux Moreau's ambitious undertaking is one I feel especially important to bring to you. It suggests that courage in science born of self-confidence (without arrogance!), a willingness to take a risk but with resilience, a lack of fear of authority, a set of mind that prepares you to take a new direction if thwarted, are of great value – win or lose."

Moreau will cover a lot of ground in her UC Davis talk. "To fully understand the macro evolutionary factors that have promoted the diversification and persistence of biological diversity, varied tools and disciplines must be integrated," she says in her abstract. "By combining data from several fields, including molecular phylogenetics/phylogenomics, comparative genomics, biogeographic range reconstruction, stable isotyope analyses, and microbial community sequencing to study the evolutionary history of the insects, we are beginning to understand the drivers of speciation and the interconnectedness of life. Comparative phylogenetic analysis reveals the interconnectedness of ants and plants and that ants diversified after the rise of the angiosperms. Comparative genomics has permitted the exploration of the role of symbiosis on genome evolution and behavioral gene evolution demonstrating that Red Queen dynamics are at play in obligate mutualisms..."

"Microbial contributions to ants are not limited to diet enrichment," she says, "and we find evidence for their role in cuticle formation. These multiple lines of evidence are illuminating a more complete picture of ant evolution and providing novel insights into the role that symbiosis plays to promote biological diversity."

UC Davis graduate student Marshall McMunn of the Phil Ward lab is the host. Community ecologist Rachel Vannette, assistant professor (, coordinates the weekly seminars. See seminar schedule.