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Extinct Family of Insects Couldn't Cope with Climate Change, Researchers Say

Jul 11, 2013 05:01 PM EDT

A newly discovered but extinct family of scorpionflies may help scientists better understand how animals respond to climate change.

Eorpidae, as the newly named family is called, lived about 50 million years ago, based on fossils found in the Washington state and British Colombia region of North America.

Discovery of the new insect family raises question over how the creatures came into and out of existence.

"The Eorpidae was part of a cluster of six closely related families in the Eocene, but today this group is reduced to two. Why were these different?" said study author Bruce Archibald, of Simon Frasier University . "We believe the answer may lay in a combination of two large-scale challenges that would have hit them hard: the evolutionary diversification of a strong competitive group and global climate change."

Regarding food sources, Eorpidae saw competition from ants. The voracious eaters may have simply been able to out-consume the Eorpidae into extinction.

But climate change perhaps also played a role in the demise of the Eorpidae. The world was much warmer 50 million years ago, even in higher elevators where the insects lived, there were few if any frost days. As the world cooled down, the insect family may not have been able to cope with the change as effectively as other types of plants and animals.

"These scorpionfly families appear to have retained their need to inhabit cooler climates, but to persist there, they would need to evolve toleration for cold winters, a feat that only the two surviving families may have accomplished," Archibald said in a statement. "Understanding the evolutionary history of these insects adds another piece to the puzzle of how animal communities change as climate does-but in this case, when an interval of global warming ends."

Archibald and his colleagues' research paper The Eocene Apex of Panorpoid Family Diversity, is published in the Journal of Paleontology.

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