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Prehistoric Flight: How it Started With Insects

Nov 07, 2014 11:55 AM EST
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An international team of experts have released the most comprehensive evolutionary roadmap of insects to date, detailing their "tree of life" in incredible detail and simultaneously showing when and why these little pests actually started to buzz around in the air.
(Photo : Pixabay)

An international team of experts have released the most comprehensive evolutionary roadmap of insects to date, detailing their "tree of life" in incredible detail and simultaneously showing when and why these little pests actually started to buzz around in the air.

The work was conducted in collaboration with more than 100 international researchers in fields of taxonomy, insect study, and evolution as part of the 1K Insect Transcriptome Evolution project, or 1KITE for short. They determined, for starters, that insects first started showing up on our planet soon after a primordial Earth cooled down and started pumping out life on dry land.

"Insects appeared around 500 million years ago, just as the first land plants and stable terrestrial environments evolved," David Yeates, director of the Australian National Insect Collection, told ABC Science. "And as soon as these early plants started to develop height, which is about 400 million years ago, insects developed wings."

But is it really so simple? Well, sort of...

Despite the fact that insects have long been known as one of the first terrestrial life-forms, they have not been nearly as extensively studied as dinosaurs or birds - groups whose own evolution of flight appears to be one very long and complex story. (Scroll to read on...)

Green lacewing (Chrysopa perla)
(Photo : Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn) Green lacewing (Chrysopa perla)

Part of the problem is that fossils are already rare. Add in the fact that you're looking for the perfectly preserved remains of tiny crushable insects, and paleontologists might as well be digging for gold.

Another problem is that the burden of the taxonomy and dating is just so daunting.

That's a Lot of Bugs

Yeates, who co-authored the study as it appears in the journal Science, explained that insects are incredibly diverse, boasting the most species of any organism.

More than 1,650,000 species of animals have been named by scientists, and nearly 80 percent of those are insects or similar buggy relatives. And this isn't even counting sub-species.

"One in every two animals is an insect," Yeates added.

Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences, who contributed to the fly-related portion of the study, told Entomology Today that "when you imagine a giant map of the evolution of life on Earth, insects are by far the largest part of the picture."

However, until now, that map was rather unclear, with huge swaths of vague "here, there be insects."

Now, "new sequencing technology allowed us to compare huge amounts of genetic data, and for the first time ever, we can fill these knowledge gaps," Trautwein said. "Science is taking us closer to solving the mysteries of the evolution of life than ever before."

Click on the image to view the full 1KITE species map. Or click HERE to visti the 1KITE species database.
(Photo : 1KITE via Entomology Today) Click on the image to view the full 1KITE species map. Or CLICK HERE to visit the 1KITE species database.

According to the study, 144 carefully chosen species were extensively analyzed, highlighting about 1,500 genes for each. And this was such tough work that the 1KITE team recruited the help of a supercomputer group that normally works on astrophysics problems. The data proved so immense that the team even had to craft a new program to tackle it.

So How Does This Help Us?

"Insects are the most species rich organisms on Earth. They are of immense ecological, economic and medical importance and affect our daily lives, from pollinating our crops to vectoring diseases," lead researcher Bernhard Misof, from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, explained in a statement. "We can only start to understand the enormous species richness and ecological importance of insects with a reliable reconstruction of how they are related."

He and his colleagues added that this work will serve as a road-map for other research, including predicting population spikes and gender control that is utterly crucial for managing pest populations in modern times.

"There are people clamoring for the dataset from all over the world," Yeates excitedly told ABC Science.

The researchers apparently can't wait to see where their work will take us.

Stonefly (Perla marginata)
(Photo : Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn) Stonefly (Perla marginata)

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