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Queen Mary Professor elected to Germany’s National Academy of Sciences

Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London has been elected to the prestigious German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina.

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Professor Lars Chittka
Professor Lars Chittka

The Leopoldina was founded in 1652 and is the oldest continuously existing academy of natural sciences and medicine in the world. Since its foundation over 7,000 individuals have been appointed members including among others, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Justus von Liebig and Max Planck.

Chittka, Professor of Sensory and Behavioural Ecology at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences, was one of 45 leading academics elected this year to the Leopoldina and was recognised for his long-standing work to understand the intelligence of honeybees and bumblebees. His research has uncovered the ability for these tiny creatures to create detailed memories of the landscape around their nests, count, and learn from each other to use tools.

On their decision to elect Professor Chittka as a member of the Leopoldina, the society said that Professor Chittka’s discoveries ‘have far-reaching implications for the general understanding of animal cognition, its evolution, and its neural basis. They question the notion that large brains are required for intelligent behaviour and open up a new ethical perspective on the conservation of insects in view of their differentiated mental life.’

Speaking on his election, Professor Chittka said: "I’m really pleased to be counted as part of this incredible group of experts elected as members of the Leopoldina. Over the centuries, members have made tremendous contributions to scientific discovery and offered recommendations to improve present and future life on the planet. I look forward to contributing to these efforts."

Understanding bee intelligence

Chittka is known for his work on the evolutionary ecology of sensory systems and cognition in the context of insect-plant interactions. His discoveries have had a significant influence on the understanding of animal intelligence and its neural basis, using the miniature nervous system of bees as a model.

Early in his work, Chittka was able to show that bees had simple counting skills. This finding marked a departure from the prevailing view at the time that insects were only capable of the most basic forms of associative learning and sparked a new trend that explored cognitive skills in the relatively small brains of insects, and how they could be realised on a neural level.

Using radar tracking of individual bees, Chittka's research team have followed the entire career of individual bees to show how pollinating insects could solve a simple version of the traveling salesman problem.

Other discoveries in bees' cognitive abilities from Chittka’s research group have included the study of attention-like phenomena, speed-accuracy trade-offs in decision making, emotion-like states, and social learning of object manipulation skills in bees.

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For media information, contact:

Sophie McLachlan
Faculty Communications Manager (Science and Engineering)
email: sophie.mclachlan@qmul.ac.uk