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Professor and Associate Department Head, Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science and Department of Biology
College of Arts and Sciences
O’Donnell is a biologist and ecologist with research interests that span evolutionary neurobiology, social behavior, population biology and community ecology. His tropical field work in Costa Rica and Ecuador has focused on social insects such as paperwasps, as well as army ants and their ecological relationships with antbirds. In social insects, O’Donnell’s research focuses on brain plasticity and the evolution of brain and behavior, examining relationships between brain evolution and social structure and behavior. In army ants and ant birds, his research includes behavioral ecology and population genetics of species’ adaptation to elevation as a system for studying impacts of climate change.
O’Donnell is an engaging and outgoing expert on entomology and tropical biology who has appeared in documentary programs including “Animal Superpowers” hosted by Patrick Stewart on National Geographic Wild and “Wild Things” hosted by Dominic Monaghan on BBC America.
More information about O’Donnell
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Is This Artificial Sweetener Too Dangerous to Eat?
Is This Artificial Sweetener Too Dangerous to Eat?
A study on the birth control effect that the artificial sweetener behind Trivia has on fruit flies, authored by Sean O'Donnell, PhD, and Daniel Marenda, PhD, both professors in the College of Arts and Sciences, was the focus of a June 1 Food52 article. They were both quoted in a related story on the website of WESH-TV (NBC-2, Orlando, Florida), which was picked up by network affiliates across the country. Fox News' "The Daily Meal" also covered the study on June 12.
This Artificial Sweetener Can Double as a Pesticide: Should You Still Eat It?
Sean O'Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was quoted in a June 5 Daily Meal story about his study that showed how the artificial sweetener Truvia limits the egg production of fruit flies.
Popular Artificial Sweetener Also Works as Pesticide and Insect Birth Control
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was quoted in a May 23 UPI story on a study he did with Daniel Marenda, PhD, an associate professor in the College, that showed the sweetener in Truvia is deadly to young flies and can be an effective pesticide. Philly Voice also reported the story.
Infrequently Asked Questions: How Do Fireflies Light Up?
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was interviewed for a Sept. 7 Philly Voice article exploring why and how fireflies light up.
Survival of the Warmest!
Sean O'Donnell, PhD, professor, and Kaitlin Baudier, a graduate student, were both quoted in a June 30 Daily Mail story covering their study on how ants that live on mountains keep nests warm in the colder climate.
Underground Ants Regrew Brain Parts to See the Light
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor and associate department head of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science (BEES) in the College of Arts and Science, was featured in a March 11 LiveScience article profiling his research on ants that evolved to regrow parts of their brain related to sight.
How Social Societies May Play a Role in Insect Brain Size
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was interviewed for a feature story on WHYY-FM’s “The Pulse” on July 10 about his research on the evolution of cognition in social insects.
Mind Meld: Social Wasps Share Brainpower
A LiveScience article featuring research led by Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, on social behavior and intelligence in wasps, ran in Yahoo!News on June 18.
The Distributed Brainpower of Social Insects
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was quoted in stories in the “Not Exactly Rocket Science” blog on National Geographic’s Phenomena and LiveScience June 9 about his new study, which provides evidence of distributed cognition, or shared brainpower, among social insects.
Exploiting the Infantry
Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, authored an article about birds tracking ants in the August issue of Natural History magazine.
Certain Artificial Sweeteners May be Toxic to Fruit Flies
Research co-led by Daniel Marenda, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, on the toxic effects of the sugar substitute erythritol, was featured in a story on GoodHousekeeping.com and Women’s Health Magazine on June 23-24. The discovery was inspired by a science fair project of Marenda’s son.
Sweetener Is Toxic To Fruit Flies
Daniel Marenda, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, were noted in stories about a study they co-led which identified a common sugar substitute, erythritol, as a potential safe and effective insecticide. The research, inspired by a science fair project of Marenda’s son, was featured on June 16 in Chemical and Engineering News and on WOR-AM radio (New York).
Boy scientist in Manayunk finds sweetener that kills fruit flies
Daniel Marenda, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Sean O’Donnell, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, were quoted in stories about a study they co-led which identified a common sugar substitute, erythritol, as a potential safe and effective insecticide. The research, inspired by a science fair project of Marenda’s son, was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY/Newsworks, CBSNews.com, Science, The Verge, Discovery News, Live Science, Science News’ Student Science, Xinhua (the state press agency of China) and other outlets on June 4.
Animal Superpowers: Army Ants
Dr. Sean O’Donnell, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, was featured on “Animal Superpowers” with Patrick Stewart on NatGeo Wild, in an episode about army ants.
Birds of All Feathers Work Together to Hunt When Army Ants March
When army ants move out, a new Drexel University study found that, instead of chasing each other away, birds work together to follow the column and hunt the insects that marching ants scare out of hiding.
Common Artificial Sweetener Likely a Safe, Effective Birth Control, Pesticide for Insects, Drexel Study Finds
Erythritol, a non-nutritive sweetener found in products like Truvia, has proven effective in killing fly larvae and slowing down their egg production, making it a good candidate for human and pet-safe pesticide use.
Mountaineering Ants Use Body Heat to Warm Nests
Underground army ants can keep their nests — called bivouacs — warm with their body heat; this social warming may enable fragile offspring to survive in chilly mountain forests , according to Drexel University researchers.
Ladykiller: Artificial Sweetener Proves Deadly for Female Flies
In testing multiple artificial sweeteners, a Drexel University research team found that one was particularly deadly for female fruit flies — and left males relatively untouched.
Seeing the Light: Army Ants Evolve to Regain Sight and More in Return to Surface’s Complex Environment
A study of army ants revealed that some species increased their brain size, including visual brain regions, after evolving above-ground behavior. Their ancestors had lived mainly underground for nearly 60 million years. Such increases in brain capacity are a rarely-studied evolutionary phenomenon.
Do Insect Societies Share Brain Power?
A new Drexel study suggests that social behavior evolved very differently in the brains of social insects than in vertebrate animals such as mammals, birds and fish.
Underground Ants Can't Take the Heat
A new Drexel study shows underground species of army ants are much less tolerant of high temperatures than their aboveground relatives—and that could mean climate change models lack a key element of how animal physiology could affect responses to changing environments.
You Catch (and Kill) More Flies with This Sweetener
In a study that began as a sixth-grade science fair project, researchers at Drexel University have found that a popular non-nutritive sweetener, erythritol, may be an effective and human-safe insecticide. Erythritol, the main component of the sweetener Truvia®, was toxic to fruit flies in the Drexel team’s study.
Paperwasps in Different Castes Develop Different-Sized Sensory Brain Structures
A queen in a paperwasp colony largely stays in the dark. The worker wasps, who fly outside to seek food and building materials, see much more of the world around them. A new study led by Drexel professor Sean O'Donnell, PhD, indicates that the brain regions involved in sensory perception also develop differently in these castes, according to the different behavioral reliance on the senses.
Private Landowners Can Help Protect Biodiversity "Arks" in Tropical Reserves
Many of the world’s tropical protected areas are struggling to sustain their biodiversity, according to a study just published in Nature by more than 200 scientists from around the world. Among them, Drexel's Dr. Sean O’Donnell, highlighted the important, beneficial role of private landowners who work to preserve biodiversity in their land surrounding tropical reserves.