PhD profile - Zoology PhD student Denise Dalbosco Dell’Aglio

by Jeanette Ariano, Marketing Manager on 24 June 2015

Zoology PhD student Denise Dalbosco Dell'Aglio is currently undertaking fieldwork research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. 

Located next to the Soberanía National Park, the Institute offers the perfect base for Denise's study of mimicry and evolution in the Heliconius butterfly. Back in Cambridge, Denise works from the University’s Zoology Department.

We recently asked Denise about her research experiences during her time at Lucy Cavendish College.

What is your particular area of expertise?

Tropical Ecology

How would you explain your current work to a stranger on the bus?

I study the predation of butterflies. But not any butterfly, I specifically study the Heliconius butterfly. These butterflies exhibit conspicuous colour patterns as a warning to predators that they are toxic and should be avoided. This makes the study of them very challenging.

Their main predators are tropical birds. I'm interested in investigating the visual signalling from the perspective of butterflies and birds. The hypothesis is that colouration of butterflies should be perceived differently from birds and butterfly vision, particularly in different light environments in the forest.

At the moment I have a predation experiment in the forest checking for predation rate of butterflies, and also experiments in the insectaries looking into behaviour of Heliconius butterflies.

Where do you do most of your work? 

I do my field work in Panama. Most of the time, I am in the forest or in the insectaries taking care of butterflies. But when I am in Cambridge, I work in the computer in an office.

What first inspired you to study the Heliconius butterfly?

Firstly, Heliconius butterflies allow us to study ecological and evolutionary implications in a complete way. Secondly, I really love field work, so I am very glad to have the opportunity to live next to the Soberanía National Park where I perform my experiments in the forest.

What kind of student were you at school?

A normal student, organised and dedicated I guess.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

Field work!

What keeps you awake at night?

Frogs and cicadas singing all night.

What false preconceptions do people have about your field?

That I am just travelling and playing around with butterflies.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned this week?

Caterpillars carry memories during their life stages until they become adult butterflies.

What one thing don’t your students or colleagues know about you?

Probably something that I don’t know either.

What’s the best thing about studying in Cambridge?

It’s the opportunity to meet amazing science people that can inspire you in your work

What do you think will be the next big discovery in your field in the next 10 years?

Maybe a kind of plant-insect communication mix with advances in genetics.

Further information