Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Travel bug

Biology professor wins Whiting Fellowship to study termites 

Betsey DyerProfessor of Biology Betsey Dexter Dyer ’75 knows how to make the most of a vacation. She has taken trips to Puerto Rico, Ecuador, parts of Africa and New Orleans’ French Quarter, where she took in the scenery, enjoyed local cuisine and, oh yes, studied microbial evolution in the guts of termites.

On a trip to Grand Bahama Island in 2004, Dyer and her two children, ages 10 and 13 at the time, spent a few days at a luxurious beachside resort—and several hours riding a jeep around the island in search of rhinotermitids and kalotermitids, which they brought back to their hotel room to view under a field microscope.

This summer, thanks to a fellowship from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation, Dyer will be heading west to the Sonoran Desert for a closer look at termites that were left behind when the inland sea that once covered the area disappeared. The fellowship will also fund a second trip, likely in the fall or next spring, to the Pacific Northwest, where Dyer will study an ancient lineage of termites left behind by glacial movement, a type otherwise only found in Japan and the Himalayan foothills. She will also be taking a trip to New York City to examine specimens archived at the American Museum of Natural History.

“It turns out that North America is actually a pretty good place to see some unusual termite examples, and part of it is because of the history of the ice age on this continent and the long-term change in climate in the Southwest,” Dyer said.

As she notes in her Whiting proposal: “Compared to many insects, termites typically are not long-distance travelers. Rather, they have been passive riders aboard the slowly drifting continents through their 250-million-year history.”

A biologist who focuses on microbial evolution, Dyer appreciates the lessons that can be found in the bellies of these insects. Different termite lineages have their own microbial symbionts, a microscopic world Dyer calls “exceptionally charismatic.”

“It turns out that the microorganisms in the termite hindguts are extravagantly, baroquely, morphologically exciting. They have different shapes and all kinds of different appendages,” she said.

Unfortunately, this kind of study requires a sacrifice on the part of the termite.

“I don’t like killing organisms, but I do chop the head off the termite and then extract out the hindgut. Then I chop up that hindgut and it makes a sort of brownish slurry of whatever the termite was digesting,” she explained. “It’s absolutely teeming with microorganisms, like Grand Central Station at rush hour, with organisms going every which way.”

Dyer, who recently celebrated her 30th year of teaching at Wheaton, has been studying microbial communities in termites since 1976.

“I’ve always loved tiny things,” she said. “I like looking under the microscope; I like that kind of focus. I like transporting myself into that world.”

The evolutionary lessons termites provide benefit Dyer as both a researcher and an educator.

“Pretty much all the classes I teach are about evolution. I don’t always get to talk about termites in class; it’s a little specific. But there are big lessons from the termites that translate to my classes,” she said.