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Friday, October 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Higher education

Gonzaga professor wins $246K grant for rhinoceros beetle research with interperative dance component

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

A study of how rhinoceros beetles communicate that includes Gonzaga University biology professor Brook Swanson is also touching on a more unexpected area – modern dance.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a four-year, multimillion-dollar grant to researchers at Gonzaga, the University of Montana and the University of Denver. About $246,000 will be coming to Swanson’s lab and a directed study class next fall that will task modern dancers to interpret for the beetles.

Swanson has been involved in the study of rhinoceros beetles for five years because he specializes in movement. The research project is led by Doug Emlen at the University of Montana, who has been studying the beetles much longer.

“We do biomechanics,” he said. “We look at animals from an engineering point of view. My lab does things his lab doesn’t.”

Swanson has long specialized in biodiversity, spending time studying everything from crabs to fish.

“I’m an evolutionary biologist,” he said. “I’m generally interested in how and why there’s this biodiversity in the world.”

He finds beetles fascinating.

“Beetles in general are the most diverse group of organisms on the planet,” and rhinoceros beetles are unusual, he said.

“They’re huge,” he said. “They have these enormous horns sticking out of their heads. They’re the saber-toothed tigers of the insect world. From the point of view of a biologist, they’re really cool.”

The males use the horns to fight other males for food or female beetles, and the assumption was always that the male with the biggest horns would win. Researchers also learned the beetles sing to each other like crickets and produce pheromones.

“It turns out it’s not that simple,” Swanson said. “It’s some combination of those different characteristics. We’ve realized there are other things going on.”

Male rhinoceros beetles can sometimes decide who the “winner” is without fighting, Swanson said.

Researchers hope the grant will allow them to fully understand how the beetles communicate and interact with each other. That will include field work in areas where the beetles are found, including Taiwan, Japan and China.

Swanson also plans to bring live beetles into his lab to study how they interact up close.

“We think the context of where they are and the types of trees probably really matters, too,” he said.

The dance component of the study came from a yearslong collaboration between Swanson and Gonzaga’s dance program director Suzanne Ostersmith. When they met at a faculty luncheon, Swanson was teaching human physiology and wanted to use dance as a way to teach his students.

“We used that as a way to study what’s going on in your brain when you learn something new,” he said.

The two also taught a class together on the science of dance and movement. Along the way, Swanson heard about the idea of using dancers to communicate science instead of using a PowerPoint slide show. He and Ostersmith put together an hourlong seminar that used dancers to explain the science of his crab research.

Dancers have a high kinesthetic intelligence. Swanson said he wants to have dancers contribute to science by having them interpret the beetles and come up with hypotheses that can be tested in lab experiments.

“The National Science Foundation decided to give us money to do it even though it’s a little bit of a crazy idea,” Swanson said.

Bringing dance into the research study also furthers his goal of making science more relevant to a broader audience.

“Dance is this really interesting way to communicate science,” he said.

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