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Dr Seirian Sumner

Dr Seirian Sumner

Dr Seirian Sumner
BSc(Lond), PhD(Lond)


Area of research

Social evolution and social behaviour

Office Life Sciences: 2A17
Life Sciences Building,
24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ
(See a map)

+44 (0) 117 39 41202


New levels of biological complexity evolve through the unification of independently replicating individuals into cooperative groups. The emergence of group living – sociality - is a major transition in evolution, and many of our planet’s most ecologically successful and invasive animals are social. My research seeks to understand how biological complexity, primarily in the form of sociality, arises at the level of the genes and the interplay of genes, behaviour and the environment.

My main study organisms are the eusocial insects (bees, wasps and ants). Eusocial insect societies epitomise complex group living, where queens are dedicated egg-layers and their offspring are non-reproductive workers,. Sociality has evolved independently at least 11 times in the Hymenoptera (bees, wasps and ants), resulting in societies that range widely in their degree of complexity, phenotypic plasticity and diversity. My research exploits this remarkable radiation in order to understand how genomes produce phenotypic and behavioural diversity, determine what facets of this diversity account for an individual’s behaviour, and explore how this influences their ecology and robustness to the environment. I address this at proximate and ultimate levels through integrating genetics, genomics, transcriptomics, epigenetics with behavioural ecology on wild populations of non-model organisms. The approach I use combines some of the most recent advances in molecular techniques and state-of-the-art field monitoring technology.

More broadly, I am interested in general genomic patterns underlying the evolution and maintenance of plastic phenotypes. My group is asking similar questions about the genomic basis of phenotypic change in Atlantic salmon, by examining the transcriptional basis alternative parr-smolt phenotypes with the aim of determining the role of olfactory receptors in migratory behaviour.

Current key research areas

  • How do identical genomes produce phenotypic and behavioural diversity?
  • What factors induce phenotypic/behavioural changes?
  • Limitations of plasticity and its implications on social evolution and behaviour. When is behavioural plasticity limited? What are the molecular mechanisms underlying plasticity?
  • Conservation implications of insect habitat relationships. Bumble-bee pollinator biology, genetics and land-use; Assessing current and future impacts of invasive ants on ecosystem services

Impact and science outreach

I am an active public communicator of science through science writing (e.g. as invited contributor to the Edge Third Culture (, New Scientist), public lectures and experiments (e.g., collective.aspx), school events, and science exhibitions. Most recently, I founded and co-organise Soapbox Science – an annual event that brings science to the streets, following the model of London’s Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner. Soapbox Science is used to raise public awareness of the high profile, active community of female scientists we have in the UK. More details about this annual event and associated Women in Science activities can be found on our dedicated website. I also write regularly for the national press on the problems facing women in science and how we can rectify them.


  • 2012-current: Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology, Bristol.
  • 2004-2012: Research Fellow (RCUK & IoZ), Institute of Zoology, London.
  • 2008: L'Oreal for Women in Science Fellowship Award, L'OrealUNSECO/Royal Society
  • 2002-2004: Research Fellow in Molecular Evolution, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama.
  • 2000-2002: Postdoctoral researcher, Population Ecology Dept., Copenhagen University.
  • 1996-1999: BBSRC Ph.D studentship, Dept. of Biology, University College London.
  • 1993-1996: BSc (Hons). Zoology, University College London.

Activities / Findings


January 2014

Happy new year!

Two new publications to start the year:

Sumner S (2014) The importance of genomic novelty in social evolution. Molecular Ecology, 23, 26–8. 

Sumner S. What scientific idea is ready for retirement? EDGE Question 2014. Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit.


December 2013

Two PhD studentships and two postdocs advertised

Deadlines : Early January 2014.


Ecological and behavioural genomics. Job Ref no.: ACAD100642. This position is primarily a wet-lab job and you will work in close collaboration with the PDRA in computational/bioinformatician (currently being advertised, job Ref no.: ACAD100641).

Bioinformatician/computational genomics.  Job Ref no.: ACAD100641. This is a computational job and you will work in close collaboration with the wet-lab PDRA position (also currently being advertised, job Ref no.: ACAD100642).



NERC PhD studentship. Traits and drivers of declines in UK pollinators.

BBSRC PhD studentship. Pesticide “hang-overs” and social disruption in pollinator societies.


November 2013

Two new doctors! Many congrats to Dr Claire Asher and Dr Thibault Lengronne on their successful PhD vivas. Claire is now travelling the world, and Thibault is back in Lausanne, working with Prof Laurent Keller. 


September 2013

PhD thesis submitted! Thibault Lengronne submitted his thesis on Nest drifting behaviour in tropical paper wasps. Hurrah! Well done Thibault!

PhD thesis submitted! Claire Asher submitted her thesis on The dynamics of reproductive dominance in dinosaur ants. Well done Claire! 

New PhD students start: Adam Devenish and Robin Southon  start their PhDs this month at Bristol. Adam has a NERC funded CASE studentship on "Assessing current and future impacts of invasive ants on ecosystem services". Robin also has a NERC studentship and will be studying "Adaptive value of males in primitively eusocial insect societies". We are delighted to welcome Adam and Robin! Links to their webpages to follow soon!

PhD transfer: Emily Bell will also be enroling at Bristol this month as she moves her university affiliation here. Emily will be continuing her work on "Phenotypic plasticity in Polistine wasps".,2041,AR.html

July 2013

New visitor:  Anna Heath has completed her MSc at Univeristy College London, and joins us for a month to finish up her exciting MSc work on the attraction of ants to electric field. Welcome Anna!

New staff: Dr Emilia Santos  joins us for a 4 month contract working on a variety of waspy molecular projects. Welcome Emilia! 

June 2013

Women in Science Outreach: Seirian is busy with colleague Dr Nathalie Pettorelli,1117,AR.html in organising our 2013 Soapbox Science event.

Read our blogs

Read our letter to The Guardian, 27th June on the oversights in the BIS recommendation to the UK government on the under-representation of women in science.

New field assistant: We welcome our new field assistant Daniel Fabbro who joining Emily Bell and Robin Southon in Panama for 6 weeks of wasping.

New Staff: Chris Wyatt started with us as an intern at Bristol on our NERC Omic Discipline Hopping grant. Chris will be with us until the end of the year. Welcome Chris!

Student funding awarded! Many congratulations to PhD student Emily Bell, who has been awarded a pre-doctoral reserach fellowship from the Smithsonian Tropical research Institute to conduct her work on phenotypic plasticity in tropical wasps.

Fieldwork in Panama: Seirian, PhD student Emily Bell and assistant Robin Southon head out to Panama for a field season on Polistes canadensis at the Smithsonian Research Institute, Panama. This is Emily's final field season, so fingers crossed the wasps behave! Robin is squeezing in a second stint as Emily's assistant, before he starts his NERC funded PhD with us in October.

May 2013

New funding awarded: We are delighted to receive further support from NERC's NBAF-Wallingford bioinformatics nodes to continue our work on developing pipelines for analysis of differential gene expression from RNAseq data. This work is supporting PhD studnet Claire Asher in the final stages of her PhD project on transcriptomics in dinosaur ants. This is a collaboration with Dr Mesude Bicak at Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and Dr Afsaneh Maleki at the University of Sheffield.

Postdoc relocation: Postdoc Stephanie Dreier (,1728,AR.html) has now relocated from Institute of Zoology, London for a 6 month position in our lab. Stephanie is working on various genetics projects on Polistes and bumblebees, including some exciting social network analyses of wasp dominance interactions. Welcome Stephanie!

April 2013

New funding awarded: NERC Omics discipline hopping grant. We are delighted to announce that Chris Wyatt will be joining our group this month as a NERC funded training position (Omics Call) exploring the relationships between transcription, protein synthesis and phenotype in social insect queen and worker castes. He will be working along- side Dr Gary Barker, in the School's transcriptomics unit and Prof Julian Gough, in Computer Science. Chris has a MSc in bioinformatics from Imperial College.

New NERC CASE PhD studentship awarded: Assessing current and future impacts of invasive ants on ecosystem services. This will form the basis of a new collaboration with Kew Royal Botanical Garden as CASE partner (Dr Rosemary Newton and Dr John Dickie). Adam Devenish will be taking up this PhD position in October. 

March 2013

New publication: Congratulations to PhD student Claire Asher on the publication of some of the first of her behavioural work on the dinosaur ant!

Asher, C, Nascimento, F, Sumner, SR & Hughes, W 2013‘Division of labour and risk taking in the dinosaur ant, Dinoponera quadriceps (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)’. Myrmecological News, vol 18., pp. 121-129

New publication: Congratulations to PhD student Emily Bell on her first wasp publication!

Bell E, Sumner S: Ecology and Social Organisation of Wasps. In Encyclopedia of Life Sciences (eLS), vol. online March 2013. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2013.;jsessionid=A90AB34515F1BC569A8CBF391A69CCF7.d02t04

Feb 2013 

New publication: Our transcriptome study on Polistes canadensis is now out!

Transcriptome analyses of primitively eusocial wasps reveal novel insights into the evolution of sociality and the origin of alternative phenotypes. Pedro G Ferreira, Solenn Patalano, Ritika Chauhan, Richard Ffrench-Constant, Toni Gabaldon, Roderic Guigo and Seirian Sumner. Genome Biology 14, R20. doi:10.1186/gb-2013-14-2-r20

A poster on this work can be found here  


  • Social insects
  • social behaviour
  • social evolution
  • phenotypic plasticity
  • Behavioural ecology
  • evolution.


  • Behavioural field ecology Molecular genetics Next generation sequencing Automated monitoring (Radio frequency identification tagging)

Recent publications

View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system

Networks & contacts

  • Prof Wolf Reik (Babraham Institute Cambridge UK)
  • Dr Solenn Patalano (Babraham Institute Cambridge UK)
  • Prof Laurent Keller (University of Lausanne Switzerland)
  • Prof Bill Hughes (University of Sussex UK)
  • Dr Mark Brown (Royal Holloway London UK)
  • Dr Claire Carvell (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Wallingford UK)
  • Prof Andrew Bourke (University of East Anglia UK)
  • Prof Roderic Guigo (Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) Barcelona Spain)
  • Prof Heinz Himmelbaur (Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) Barcelona Spain)
  • Dr Dick James (University of Bath UK)
  • Dr Rosemary Newton & Dr John Dickie (Kew Royal Botanical Gardens UK)
  • Dr Sam Martin & Prof David Hazzlerigg (University of Aberdeen Scotland)

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