James Thomas Costa, the H. F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University, studies insect social behavior. Much of his work has focused on the social lives of caterpillars, sawflies, and beetles from the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina to tropical Costa Rica and Mexico. He and his students study how and why these insects maintain societies, experimentally manipulating them in the laboratory and in the field to learn how they communicate and the ecological factors that promote the evolution of group living.
As a Radcliffe fellow, Costa plans to bring to fruition a book project with Harvard University Press about the natural history, ecology, and evolution of diverse social insects and their relatives. Much has been written about ant, bee, wasp, and termite societies, but Costa’s “caterpillar’s eye view” of sociality has led him to cast his net more widely, synthesizing for the first time the vast literature on group living and parental care in dozens of other insects and spiders. Bringing these groups into the sociality fold will help forge a new and general model of social evolution, another aim of Costa’s book.
Costa received his doctoral degree in insect population genetics from the University of Georgia in 1992 and has been studying social caterpillars and their ilk ever since. This work, largely supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture, has yielded nearly twenty research publications and reviews to date. From 1993 to 1996, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he remains a research fellow. Costa joined the faculty at Western Carolina University in 1996 and was recently awarded his named professorship.