Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service

Research sheds light onto the debut of insect life on Earth

Wed, 12/11/2013

LAWRENCE — “Insects dominate our world,” according to University of Kansas researcher Michael Engel. Thus, anything scientists can learn about the evolution of insects leads to a better grasp of how biology in general has changed over time. 

“More than half of all known species on the planet are insects, and they rule virtually all terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems,” said Engel, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Many insect lineages are ecologically ubiquitous — such as bees, ants, termites — and they impact our daily lives in a big way. They pollinate our crops; they are the sources of many of our medicines or other chemicals; and some are tied to the spread of disease.”

Understanding the factors that led to insect origins and fueled their successes, as well as what pushed particular groups to extinction, such as the influence of climate change, is vital to human health and security. 

Engel has just co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Nature that sheds new light on the evolution of the Eumetabola, a scientific term for the group of organisms that includes most insect species.  

“Beetles, bees, ants, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, fleas, lacewings, lice, thrips, aphids, true bugs and all of their close relatives are eumetabolous insects,” said Engel. “If you are talking about insects, then you are likely talking about a eumetabolan insect.”

The researcher, who also serves as a senior curator at KU’s Biodiversity Institute, said that in spite of the importance of this group of insects, their earliest origins have been difficult to pin down.

“There’s been a lack of identifiable fossils from the Carboniferous Period or earlier deposits,” Engel said. “Until now, the first definitive specimens assignable to the Holometabola, the big chunk of the already massive Eumetabola, were from the early Permian — but those aren’t the most primitive of their kind, except in a few cases, and pointed to much earlier diversification events. From the Carboniferous, the immediately preceding time period, we only had specimens of much more primitive insect lineages. “

The size of the fossils makes them difficult to detect, according to Engel.

“They’re tiny, so unless you are hunting for them, they would be easy to overlook,” he said. “Also, fossils from these deposits aren’t preserved with a strong contrast between them and the surrounding rock. Thus, it takes specialized lighting to get them to easily pop out.”

Nevertheless, Engel and his co-authors in Nature describe newly discovered specimens and fragments that can be confidently tied to holometabolan lineages. More significant, the specimens are not of the typical orders but are far more primitive.  

“For example, there’s a species related to the lineage that eventually would give rise to the wasps in Triassic,” he said. “It wasn’t a wasp itself and instead would look more like some kind of generalized primitive group, but it already had a few of the evolutionary novelties that would later be part of the order of wasps, ants and bees.”

Among the other five species Engel and his colleagues describe in Nature, one is an early relative of true bugs and their relatives; one is an early relative of barklice, and then ultimately true lice; and one is an early relative of the lineage that would give rise to the beetles in the Permian.

KU is a leader in paleontology generally, and Engel’s lab is one of a few worldwide with expertise in the fossil record of insects — and, among those labs, an even smaller subset have sufficient expertise in the Paleozoic.

Engel said an understanding of ancient development and origins of insects is vital for an understanding of our modern world.

“Our own evolution — biotic and cultural — is inextricably woven into the lives of insects,” he said. “Insects have been on the planet for at least 410 million years and were first to fly, first to develop agriculture and first to form complex societies. We like to talk about the ‘Age of Dinosaurs’ or the ‘Age of Mammals,’ but all of these are greatly dwarfed by an overarching ‘Age of Insects.’ If humans vanished from the Earth it would have only a beneficial effect on the greater biota. If insects disappeared, then life itself would struggle to persist.”

Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times