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Queens Anniversary Prizes 2015

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Professor Gabriella Gibson

Professor of Medical Entomology
BA, DPhil, Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society
Agriculture, Health & Environment Department
Natural Resources Institute


Professor Gabriella Gibson started her career as a research assistant at the department of Pure & Applied Biology, Imperial College at Silwood Park (ICSP), from 1981–87, where she researched the behaviour of the tsetse fly, responsible for trypanosomiasis in humans and cattle in Africa. The main research findings were:


  • Circadian rhythms affected the timing of larviposition
  • Fieldwork in Zimbabwe demonstrated tsetse alter their flight course to maintain contact with animal odour plumes
  • The fieldwork also showed that the visual-ecology of tsetse eyes was well-matched to the time of day they are active, their flight speed and visual features of the landscape
  • A zebra's stripes make it all but invisible to tsetse.
The project was supervised by world leaders in tsetse behaviour: Professor Glyn Vale (NRI) and the late Dr John Brady (ICSP).


From 1987–91, Gabriella was a lecturer in the behaviour of disease vectors at the Department of Medical Parasitology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Her research projects on the behaviour of the most important malarial species, Anopheles gambiae, with fieldwork in Zanzibar and Tanzania enabled the development of a novel method to bioassay new insecticides, which is currently in use at LSHTM, and characterised mosquito visual sensitivity to low light. During this time, Gabriella taught on the MSc in medical parasitology and entomology and became an honorary lecturer in the Department of Biology at ICSP.

From 1992–98, Gabriella was a research associate at the Department of Biology, ICSP where she undertook international projects and collaborations including the development a novel trap for malarial mosquitoes, with Professor M. Coluzzi (Italy) and Dr C. Costantini, (Burking Faso), and characterised differences in responsiveness to human odours between mosquito species.

From 2000 to present, Gabriella has been an honorary lecturer at the department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at LSHTM. Between 2007–11, she was a senior lecturer (part-time) at the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton. From 1998 to present, she has been a senior scientist, promoted to Professor of Medical Entomology, at NRI, University of Greenwich at Medway.

Gabriella research projects on insects that are of medical and veterinary importance. Her research findings include:

  • Integrated vector control can protect cattle-owning pastoralists in sub-Sahara Africa from tsetse affecting cattle health and mosquitoes affecting human health, based on field work in Ethiopia
  • The eyes of nocturnal mosquitoes have evolved previously unknown mechanisms to heighten their sensitivity to light, which enables them to control flight using only starlight,
  • Mosquitoes communicate through the sounds produced by their wing-beats during swarming and mating interactions
  • Key differences in swarming behaviour and sound communication between closely related mosquito species help explain apparent reproductive isolation and ultimately speciation in the malarial mosquito Anopheles gambiae species complex, with fieldwork in Burkina Faso. Gabriella's key collaborators included Prof. I.J. Russell (University of Brighton), Prof. S.J. Torr (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine) and Dr R. Dabiré (Institute of Malarial Research, Burkina Faso).

Gabriella also teaches conservation ecology on the School of Science BSc environmental science and geography programmes, and the NRI MSc agriculture for sustainable development programme.

Research/Scholarly Interests

The main aim of Professor Gibson's research is to elucidate how disease-transmitting insects use their sensory systems (vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch) to obtain the information they need from the outside world to guide the behaviours that are essential for their survival; e.g. locating a suitable mate, finding their blood-hosts and locating a suitable place to lay their eggs.

Her research is inter-disciplinary, involving the study of animal behaviour, sensory physiology and neurophysiology. Fieldwork is crucial to establish the context in which behaviours occur, and laboratory studies are required to investigate the details of sensory-guided behaviour where the most essential environmental parameters can be recreated and manipulated by the experimenter. The aim is to identify key stimuli that guide behaviour and how those stimuli are used by the sensory-motor systems of insects. Knowledge of behaviour is a prerequisite to the development of well-designed tools to monitor and control pest insects and contributes insights into how sensory systems work in higher order animals.

Professor Gibson's research is based at the NRI in laboratories instrumented with 3D video and sound recording facilities and in the field, currently in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Her published work has contributed to understanding of how specific aspects of tsetse and mosquito vision and olfaction help them to find blood-hosts, designed an improved, standardised trap for malarial mosquito species and a more sensitive bioassay to test new insecticides and discovered a previously unknown mechanism of species-recognition in mosquitoes.

Current and Previous Funded Research Projects

A novel acoustic signalling system discovered in mosquitoes: exploring the biophysical and neurophysiological basis for interactive behaviour in an insect. BBSRC: £587,000. 2008–11. Role: Co-PI. Collaborator Prof. I.J. Russell, FRS, University of Sussex and Dr R. Dabiré, IRSS, Burkina Faso.

It has been known for more than 150 years that males use their highly sensitive hearing organ (antennae and Johnston's organ) to locate potential mates by detecting the sound of a con-specific female's wing-beats. In 2006, Professor Gibson and Professor Russell (University of Brighton) discovered that females also detect males, but respond by 'singing a duet' with the male, each one subtly altering the frequency of their wing-beats to converge on a shared harmonic if they are a 'good match'. All-the-while, the male closes in on the female in a high-speed chase.

Remarkably and perhaps uniquely in the insect kingdom, this system of sexual recognition between mosquitoes is based on interactive auditory exchanges between mosquitoes, consisting of continuous changes in wing-beat frequency in response to the detection of simultaneous changes in the wing-beat frequency of the other, unlike the highly stereotypical 'call-response' song patterns of communication described for other insects. This project characterised the behavioural, neurophysiological and biophysical mechanisms of auditory sexual recognition in mosquitoes, which led to our next novel discovery, that the Johnston's organ of mosquitoes is tuned not to the actual wing-beat frequency of the opposite sex, but to different tones in the harmonics of antennal vibrations which are generated by the combined input of flight tones from both mosquitoes. This acoustic distortion has been known to exist in the hearing organs of a range of organisms, but previously described as an interesting epiphenomenon, with no obvious purpose. Mosquitoes, however, appear to use distortion products as sensory cues that enable male–female pairs to communicate through auditory interactions between them. (See: Gibson & Russell, 2006; Warren et al., 2009).

Areas for future research: These results led the researchers to a second phase of research investigating the potential for frequency matching to be used as a mechanism for species recognition, and found that the incipient species Anopheles gambiae s.s. and An. coluzzii from Burkina Faso, where they are sympatric, do not frequency match unless they are paired with their own species (Pennetier et al., 2010; Gibson et al., 2010), and this is the subject of a new project (see The Leverhulme Trust funded project, below).

The effect of radiation on the mating songs and courtship behaviour of the IAEA colony mosquitoes. Funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) project on the biology of male mosquitoes in relation to genetic control programmes: £10,000. 2012–13. Role: Chief Scientific Investigator.

The efficacy of the sterile insect technique to control mosquitoes depends to a large extent on the mating competitiveness of released males compared to wild males of the target species. This project successfully demonstrated that male courtship behaviour, especially mate recognition through flight tone harmonisation, is not affected by the colonisation or irradiation of the IAEA colony males.

Areas for future research: This research project established a 'proof of concept' that 'pure' research on mosquito communication has an immediate practical application to the development of novel tools for controlling mosquitoes of public health importance. The current rise in interest in genetically modified or manipulated mosquitoes to control wild mosquito populations provides a welcome opportunity for collaboration. NRI could become a centre of expertise for testing the mating compatibility of engineered and wild strains of target mosquito populations.

Exploiting acoustic distortion by mosquitoes to listen on the wing. The Leverhulme Trust: £194,000. 2012–14. Role: Co-PI. Collaboration with Prof. I.J. Russell, University of Brighton.

The underlying mechanism of flight tone convergence (see The Wellcome Trust funded project, above) is not well understood. We know that it occurs, remarkably, at frequencies too high for males or females of a given species to hear. The physiological mechanism by which mosquitoes detect and respond differentially to the flight tones of closely related taxa is the subject of this project. It has been shown that mosquito hearing is the most sensitive of all arthropods. Moreover, they can detect and process the sound of another mosquito that is only a few centimetres away, against the background sound of their own flight tones, with both sources of sound simultaneously impinging on the flagella of their antennae. In itself, this acoustic capability is extraordinary and presents valuable insights into the wide variety of hearing mechanisms that have evolved to enhance the sensitivity and specificity of sound detection in insects.

Areas for future research: The ultimate objective is to elucidate the mechanisms by which ecological speciation occurs in the malarial mosquito species complex Anopheles gambiae s.l. at the physiological level. Clearly, when two entities no longer recognise each other as conspecifics, the speciation process is more-or-less complete. The immediate aim of this phase of the project will be to determine the acoustic cues used by An. gambiae M and S forms to distinguish themselves from each other.

Responsibilities within the University

  • Research and teaching
  • Lead Pest Behaviour Research Group

Selected Publications

Recent Conference Presentations

  • Tirados, I., Gibson, G., and Torr, S. (2008) 'Evidence of an interaction between host preference and endo/exophagy in the malaria mosquito Anopheles arabiensis.' International Congress of Entomology, Durban South Africa.
  • Warren, B., Gibson, G., and Russell, I. (2008) 'Male and female Culex mosquitoes match their flight tones at frequencies beyond their auditory range.' International Congress of Entomology, Durban, South Africa.
  • Gibson, G. (2008) 'Harmony between the sexes; auditory interactions between male and female Culex mosquitoes.' Royal Entomological Society, Special Interest Group on Medical & Veterinary Entomology, Newcastle, UK.
  • Gibson, G. (2010) 'Auditory interactions between flying mosquitoes.' IAEA, Special meeting on Male Mosquito Biology, Vienna.
  • Gibson, G., Torr, S., Tirados, I., Warren, B., and Russell, I. (2011) 'What are the senses trying to tell us? An experimental approach to understanding vector behaviour.' European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) 5th Conference on the Biology of Disease Vectors: Population and Molecular Biology of Vectors, Kolymbari, Crete.
  • Gibson, G., Warren, B., Pennetier, C., and Russell, I. 'Singing on the wing; a novel mode of communication in mosquitoes' (2012) , The Neurobiology and Evolution of Insect Acoustic Communication Workshop, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Virginia, USA.
  • Gibson, G., Sawadago, S., Costantini, C., Pennetier, C., Diabaté, A., and Dabiré, K.R. (2013) 'The significance of circadian rhythms in Anopheles gambiae s.s mating behaviour and reproductive isolation of molecular forms.' EMBO 6th Conference on the Biology of Disease Vectors: Population and Molecular Biology of Vectors, Kolymbari, Crete.

External Recognition

  • Chief Medical Editor, Medical and Veterinary Entomology, a journal of the Royal Entomological Society (2004–10)
  • Member of editorial board, Medical and Veterinary Entomology (2002 to present)
  • Molecular Entomology Steering Committee, UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) (1999-2006)
  • Member, Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour
  • Member, Brain Research Association
  • Member, American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene
  • Member, Entomological Society of America.

Contact Information

Professor Gabriella Gibson

Natural Resources Institute

University of Greenwich

Central Avenue, Chatham Maritime, Kent ME4 4TB, United Kingdom.

Tel: +44 (0) 1634 88 3457

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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