From birds to insects, Paulo Borges interviewed for cE3c
- September 16th, 2016
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Interview by Marta Daniela Santos
Paulo Borges (Azorean Biodiversity Group - cE3c) began by studying birds, but nowadays he dedicates himself to the study of arthropods - animals like flies, grasshoppers, spiders or beetles, among others. His projects span from basic to applied research - such as the insect pests that affect the Azores and have serious economic and social implications.
Recently, Paulo Borges also coordinated the large team that organized the international congress Island Biology 2016, which on last July brought to the city of Angra do Heroísmo more than 400 researchers, from 46 countries (For the portuguese version of this interview see http://ce3c.ciencias.ulisboa.pt/outreach/press&events/ver.php?id=677)
How did the opportunity arise to organize Island Biology 2016?
This conference comes as a result of an application of our group [the Biodiversity Group of the Azores - cE3c] to its organization during the first edition of Island Biology, held in Hawaii in 2014. After presenting a business plan, fortunately we were selected as the necessary logistics and capacities, not only scientific but also finantial, for the organization of an event of this dimension. It was a vote of confidence in the work that the group has been developing on islands, particularly in the Azores.
You had an enormous engagement from the public - more than 400 participants, is that right?
Yes. After Hawaii, in which there were about 430 participants, being able to attract 409 participants from about 40 countries just two years after was extraordinary.
It lived up to your expectations, then.
Initially our expectations were lower: we thought that the Azores would have a lower mobilization, being a lesser-known archipelago, less attractive than Hawaii. However it was on the contrary, which was extraordinary. We had over 50 people from the United States, for example. A quarter of the conference participants was Portuguese, also showing that Portugal is working on high level research on islands. We counted with the presence of leading research groups in Portugal working on these issues, namely cE3c, CIBIO and MARE, which shows that islands remain a very attractive research topic, both nationally and internationally.
And the work didn't end with the end of the conference: you are now working to identify the 50 fundamental questions in Island Biology, right?
Yes. This idea comes from a group of researchers who have worked together in recent years, including Professor Brent Emerson, who is now working in the Canaries in the IPNA-CSIC, his postdoc Jairo Patiño, Professor Robert Whittaker from the University of Oxford [United Kingdom], myself and Professor José Fernández-Palaciosfrom the University of La Laguna in the Canary Islands. This idea was inspired by the idea of William Sutherland of the 100 fundamental questions in Ecology, and taking advantage of the fact that in 2017 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book The Theory of Island Biogeography by Robert MacArthur and Edward Wilson. We hope that the identification of the 50 fundamental questions in Island Biology can also serve as a springboard for further research on ecological and evolutionary theory on islands.
Turning now to your scientific research work. One of your passions are arthropods - flies, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, etc. Why these animals?
Originally my interest was for birds. One of my first works, still as a teenager, was a study in which I compiled the most scientific names I could find of bird species in the Azores and the world. It was also around that time that I began to watch birds. The idea of studying arthropods comes from the realization that in the Azores the diversity of birds was very low. Then there was the suggestion of some biologists and naturalists, such as Dalberto Teixeira Pombo of the Centre of Young Naturalists, who inspired me to start looking at arthropods and in particular at the Coleoptera of the Azores. I started as a collector, and then gradually I was learning the taxonomy with the support of Professor Artur Serrano from the Faculty of Sciences of Lisbon, Portugal, with whom during my degree I learned to work with this group of organisms.
What have we learned so far with research on arthropod of the Azores?
Arthropods have served as a very interesting model at various levels. Not only in terms of new species discovered - which proves that there is still much to learn about the biodiversity of the Azores - but mainly as an ecological model to test various theories. An example is the work I developed in my PhD, which evaluated the importance of the geological age of islands to the knowledge of their diversity, which adds a new variable to the MacArthur and Wilson's theory key variables, area and the distance to the mainland. This work also inspired the theory of GDM [General Dynamics Model] of Professor Robert Whittaker and colleagues, which incorporates the geological age in a dynamic model explaining the species diversity on islands.
So, arthropods eventually emerge as a model to inspire ecological studies and evolution on islands. In addition, I also used arthropods to study the process of how diversity varies on islands in natural areas with different characteristics. In particular, for the first time it was carried out a standardized study on islands in different protected areas with standard methodologies, with the BALA project [Biology of Arthropods of Laurissilva of the Azores, 1998-2005] and, nowadays, these methods are starting to be applied to other archipelagos.
One of the problems to which you have also devoted yourself recently is that of infestations by termites in the Azores. What is the current situation?
Research with termites is my most applied work. It is not, let's say, my scientific passion, but a need there is of working with a serious problem in terms of economic impact in the Azores. Being one of the few enthomologists here in the region, I ended up involving myself in this issue, which dates back to 2004 - for more than 12 years. We have had a lot of work, involving several researchers not only from the University of Azores but also from north-american universities and LNEC [Portuguese National Civil Engineering Laboratory]. In particular Professor Rudolf Scheffrahn, Professor Timothy Myles and Professor Lina Nunes from LNEC, who have collaborated with me in order to better understand this problem and propose new techniques adapted to the situation of the Azores for pest control of termites.
The situation at this time is variable. In the case of subterranean termites we are able to control the situation and may possibly be able to eradicate them locally. In the case of the dry-wood termite, one that initially inspired all the work, the situation is more serious. In the case of Angra do Heroísmo, Ponta Delgada and Horta their control seems rather difficult, but we are working so that at least people can control the pest in their homes and we can reduce the population of termites in the coming years.
How many islands are already affected?
That we know of, only three islands are not affected: Flores, Corvo and Graciosa. But there is no guarantee that the problem does not already exist in these islands: it can be so local and small that it has not yet been detected.
The social and economic consequences are quite significant, right?
Yes, yes. The economic impact is already at the level of a few million euros and there are estimates that indicate that in the coming years could reach several million euros, taking into account the reconstruction of houses and roofs. Some houses have been completely rebuilt in Angra do Heroísmo and Ponta Delgada, with values between 100 and 200 thousand euros per household. If we multiply this by several thousand homes, quickly we come to very large figures for the economic impact of this pest.
It is therefore a problem that will extend over years or even decades.
Yes. Our team has been monitoring and testing different techniques along the years, and we have students working on this problem. We have had a PhD in this area, we are finishing another doctorate, and there are several high-impact research projects running in terms of application of science to reality.
Thinking of students who may be considering working in this area, what are the biggest challenges you see for the near future?
The major challenge will be to enter the area of chemistry, of communication between termites, in order to be able to find ways of control by attraction - sexual pheromones or the like. It is something that one of our PhD students is already exploring, but it requires a considerable investment in the coming years so that we can devise an attractive trap for adult termites at the time of swarming. This would be the great innovation and applied discovery that we would like to achieve in the coming years, and to which we will try to find appropriate financing.