I am fascinated by recent insights into the multitude of ways that unseen organisms like viruses and bacteria shape the natural world. Not only are microorganisms important for organismal or environmental health, they may be responsible, sometimes, for the way animals behave.
For my PhD, I study the relationship between social behavior and bacteria in a socially polymorphic spider, Anelosimus studiosus. Throughout most of its range (from Central America to the Southern United States), A. studiosus females are subsocial; adult females care for their young, but do not cooperate with other adult females. However, in higher latitudes in the Southeastern U.S., females are occasionally found living in large colonies of up to ~70 individuals. In these colonies, females will cooperate in web maintenance, prey capture, and brood care. This variation in behavior provides a great opportunity for investigating how bacterial communities are influenced by social behavior, and vice versa.