Monday, December 10, 2012

A recently discovered new species of insect larva with its specialized pack of plant remains indicates that a complex camouflage behavior used by insects today dates to at least 110 million years ago.

The discovery by a team of Spanish researchers and Michael S. Engel, a KU Biodiversity Institute entomologist and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was based on the study of an amber piece found in 2008 in the El Soplao outcrop (Cantabria, Northern Spain), the Mesozoic’s richest and largest amber site in Europe.  The study is being published this week in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The fossil, about four millimeters long, is a predatory larva of the order Neuroptera (lacewings and their relatives). It is covered by a tangle of plant filaments that it collected with its jaws to form a defensive shield and camouflage itself. This survival strategy, sometimes called “trash carrying,” is observed in current species to render them nearly undetectable to predators and prey.

Related to current green lacewings, the fossil represents a new genus and species designated Hallucinochrysa diogenesi. The name alludes to its “mind-blowing appearance,” the researchers said, and its resemblance to Diogenes syndrome, a human behavioral disorder characterized by compulsive hoarding of trash. 

The research identified the filamentous plant remains composing the larval trash packet as trichomes, or plant hairs with diverse shapes and functions. The trichomes are thought to belong to a specific group of ancient ferns.

Today green lacewing larvae harvest plant materials or even detritus and arthropod remains and carry them on their backs, nestled among small tubercles with hairs. On the contrary, Hallucinochrysa diogenesi possessed a bizarre characteristic: it possessed extremely elongate tubercles, with hairs that had trumpet-shaped endings acting as anchoring points. All this structure, completely unknown until now, formed a dorsal basket that retained the trash and prevented it from sliding when the insect moved.

Hallucinochrysa diogenesi demonstrates that camouflage strategy and its necessary morphological adaptations appeared early and was well developed during the era of the dinosaurs. In the case of green lacewings, this complex behavior has been around for at least 110 million years. This is significant for evolutionary studies pertaining to animal behavior and the adaptative strategies of organisms throughout Earth’s history.

The study also shows an ancient and close plant-insect interaction — possibly an example of mutualism: the predatory larvae saved ferns from plagues, whereas ferns provided larvae with a habitat and protection. In a Cretaceous environment where resin forests in the ancient Iberian Peninsula were razed by wildfires, this larva collected remains from a fern that grew abundantly after wildfires.

The El Soplao outcrop, where the discovery was made, is one of the most important localities aiding researchers to unravel questions about Earth history, ancient forest ecosystems, and the evolution of major invertebrates lineages such as the insects.

In addition to Engel, the researchers who participated in the study are: Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente and Xavier Delclòs, of the University of Barcelona (Spain); Enrique Peñalver, from the Geomineral Museum in Madrid; and Mariela Speranza, Carmen Ascaso and Jacek Wierzchos, from the National Museum of Natural Sciences of the Spanish National Research Council.

News Type:
Research News
Friday, August 31, 2012


A male (above) and female (below) of Thyreus denolii, one of the new species discovered. Image credit: Jakub Straka and Michael
The biota of island archipelagos is of considerable interest to biologists. These isolated areas often act as 'evolutionary laboratories', spawning biological diversity rapidly and permitting many mechanisms to be observed and studied over relatively short periods of time. Such islands are often the places of new discoveries, including the documentation of new species.

The Republic of Cape Verde comprises 10 inhabited islands about 570 kilometers off the coast of West Africa and have been known since at least 1456. Although the bee fauna of the islands was thought to be moderately well known, research by Jakub Straka of Charles University in Prague and Michael S. Engel of the KU Biodiversity Institute have shown that this is not the case. A recent study published in the open access journal ZooKeys documents the cuckoo bee fauna of the islands, revealing that their entire fauna of cuckoo bee species is in fact new to science.

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, August 2, 2012

As scientists have toiled to chronicle of the evolution of insects, a frustrating blank spot in the fossil record has masked one of the most critical points in insects’ development — the Devonian, or roughly 365 million years ago.

The biodiversity of insects, the greatest radiation of all life today, during the Devonian is captivating to researchers because it was around this period when insects first diversified. They developed novel feeding strategies and first evolved wings, becoming the original organisms on Earth to evolve powered flight.

“Insects do have a good fossil record, but unfortunately not from this critical time period,” said Michael Engel, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. “Prior to this, only two definitive insects have been recorded from the Devonian, and both are exceptionally fragmentary.”

Now, Engel and colleagues have described the first complete insect fossil from the Devonian. The specimen illuminates the timing of changes to insect biology that resulted in flight. Their findings appear in the Aug. 2 issue of Nature.

“The current fossil is much more complete than any other record from the Devonian and comes from the Late Devonian — somewhat younger than the other two Devonian fossils, but far more complete,” said Engel, who also serves as senior curator at KU’s Natural History Museum. “The features of this fossil indicate that it, like a fossil I described in 2004, was not of the most primitive lineages of insects, which are largely wingless. This indicates that significant diversification had already taken place and that winged insects were present at the time, supporting the notion that wings evolved much earlier than was believed.”

“It helps close a giant gap in the fossil record — namely the lack of fossil material from the early Devonian fossils through to the much better deposits of the mid-Carboniferous,” said Engel. “It helps to narrow this gap in the fossil record of the most diverse lineage of life on this planet.”

News Type:
Research News
Thursday, August 2, 2012


Photo by Dan Bennett

Dr. Volker Puthz, a longtime collaborator of the KU Entomology division, has previously described more than 100 staphylinid species using KU's entomology collections, and he recently published his largest work yet.  In  "On the New World species of Megalopinus," he describes 205 new species of staphylinids, or Rove beetles, of which approximately 160 descriptions were based on KU specimens.

The beetles are visual predators on the underside of logs with fungus. KU has the world's best collection due to the routine use of an unusual collection method: pyrethrin fogging. The late Steve Ashe (and his staff/students) used the techinque extensively on his expeditions, building an amazing collection of what otherwise would be rarely encountered beetles.

News Type:
Research News
Friday, July 13, 2012

A National Science Foundation (NSF) program that aims to bring "dark data" to the light has funded four research programs - two of them tied to the KU Biodiversity Institute.  Craig Freeman, botany curator, and Caroline Chaboo, entomology curator, are both collaborators involved in "Plants, Herbivores and Parasitoids: A Model System for the Study of Tri-Trophic Associations." Andrew Short, entomology curator, is one of the collaborators involved in "InvertNet--An Integrative Platform for Research on Environmental Change, Species Discovery and Identification." 

The NSF Thematic Collection Networks awards program is based on the idea that biological diversity is critical to the future of our planet, but incomplete information on species, their distributions and environmental and biological changes over time make it difficult to assess the status of and changes in biodiversity.

Much of the relevant information exists in the nation's research collections, but the majority isn't integrated and isn't readily available online. It's "dark data"--inaccessible to most biologists, policy-makers and the general public.

To answer this need, the program is expected to result in more efficient and innovative ways to provide access to information in biological research collections, and to speed up the process of integrating diverse information on the genetic, ecological, organismal and molecular biology of specimens in collections.

The Tri-Trophic Associations grant of $1.5 million will unify  about 8 million records in 34 collections to answer how the distributions and phenologies of the plants, pests and parasitoids relate to each other, in a Tri-Trophic Databasing and imaging project, known as TTD. The data will benefit basic scientific questions and practical applications in the agricultural sciences, conservation biology, ecosystem studies and climate change and biogeography research. Specimens from the University of Kansas Insect Collection and the MacGregor Herbarium will be digitized and imaged as part ofthis effort, with re-curation as needed.

The InvertNet project will develop new ways to digitize, collate, and serve specimen and collections data for 56 million specimens across 22 midwest arthropod collections. KU's portion of the grant will be $210,000.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The KU Natural History Museum and the Kansas Biological Survey invite the public for an impromptu field trip to experience butterflies, Kansas woodlands and science.

On Friday, May 18 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the public is welcome to visit with KU scientists at the Fitch Natural History Reservation located just north of the Lawrence Municipal Airport. Natural History Museum and Biological Survey scientists will be available to offer information and guidance to visitors.  

Ornithologist Mark Robbins expects to see thousands of Emperor Hackberry butterflies emerging at the property, which is part of the KU Field Station.

It is rare to see so many of the brown and gray butterflies appear so early in the spring. As caterpillars, the butterflies that are now emerging fed on the leaves of the many hackberry trees at the reservation. Robbins expects the trees to recover later in the season when there are not so many hungry caterpillars.  

Visitors should be prepared for wooded hiking conditions: wear loose-fitting clothing, bring water and use insect repellant. The Fitch reservation and the rest of the field station have very limited parking; carpooling to the site is encouraged. Visitors may park along E. 1600 Road near the entrance to the reservation. Directions to the site are available here. Visitors are also asked to stay on established trails. A map of the trails is available here.

For those who cannot attend the event, the KU Field Station welcomes the public any day at the Fitch reservation from dawn to dusk.

News Type:
Event News
Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A new exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art features creative projects made by University of Kansas researchers who traveled to the Peruvian Amazon last summer.

Co-sponsored by KU's Biodiversity Institute, 39 Trails is on view through July 22 in the Museum's Gallery 318 South, and shares the work of a research team that included seven undergraduate students and two graduate students under the direction of KU curator/professors Caroline Chaboo, entomology, and Steve Goddard, Spencer Museum of Art. "Everyone involved relied heavily on a small map of the base of their activity, the Los Amigos Biological Research Station," Goddard says. "The map detailed 39 trails, underscoring the human presence in the rain forest, as well as the difficulty of navigating it."

A full description of the exhibition is available on the Spencer's exhibition page.

Three of the undergraduate students were part of a pilot program: the Rudkin Undergraduate Scholarships for International Interdisciplinary Research Experiences. This new scholarship strives to give the students an arena for integrating disciplines and synthesizing knowledge across the sciences, arts and humanities in a global setting.

In addition to sharing the creative work by the three Rudkin Scholars, Goddard says the goal of the exhibition is to include contributions from all members of the cohesive research team to give a fuller account of the different ways the rain forest experience touched everyone involved.

The installation consists of small acrylic cases — one for each team member — that the researchers have individually curated to summarize their experiences.  In addition to the items in these cases and the written and pictorial creative work of the Rudkin Scholars, the exhibition includes printed leaves, photographs, insect specimens and audio recordings made at the Los Amigos Biological Research Station where the group spent 10 days in focused work.

News Type:
Research News
Monday, March 5, 2012

Andrew Short, curator of entomology, will receive a $7,300 REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) supplement for his  National Science Foundation Venezuela survey grant. The new grant will support the research of an undergraduate student working with Andrew over the next year.

News Type:
Award Grant News
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Giant flea

A giant flea from the Middle Jurassic

Writing in the journal Nature this week, KU entomologist Michael Engel and an international research team have described the oldest definitive fleas to date: giant fleas from the Middle Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of China.

The findings by Engel, André Nel and colleagues show that these ancient fleas were wingless and distinctly larger than recent fleas with body lengths of 14–20.6 mm (.5 to almost an inch) in females and 8–14.7 mm (about .25-.5 inch) in males. They also had many defining features of fleas while they retained primitive traits, such as non-jumping hind legs.

Their most impressive feature, however, was their long and serrated suctorial siphon, which was used for piercing the hides of their hosts. These were longer in females than in males. The authors note that an apparent difference between these and modern fleas is the size of the mouthpart, which are relatively shorter in today’s examples. However, they are proportionally about the same length relative to overall body size in both the ancient and modern flea.

The discovery also provides a clue as to the development of chosen hosts for fleas. The fleas’ special morphology suggests that they had hairy or feathered ‘reptilian’ hosts before moving on to mammals and birds later on.

News Type:
Research News
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A University of Kansas researcher and scientists from China and the United Kingdom have again played what may be the world’s oldest love song.

Using an exquisitely preserved mid-Jurassic katydid fossil found in China, the researchers have recreated the insect’s mating call produced by “stridulation” — the rubbing together of musical wing parts. Their findings appear today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We were actually able to recreate that sound,” said Michael Engel, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior curator of entomology at KU. “The structures used to produce sounds generally aren’t preserved in katydid fossils. There’s a scraper and file on their wings that they run together. We found a specimen where you could see these structures in great detail. You can look and tease out what these two structures will produce in terms of sound.”

The team completed a paleobioacoustical analysis of the katydid fossil and using computers recreated the mating call created by the nocturnal katydid some 165 million years ago. It turns out that the song of Archaboilus musicus, the ancient species, could sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a modern cricket or katydid on a summer’s evening.

“During that time period it would have been a warm evening and, just like in the modern-day forest, it would have been teeming with life,” Engel said. “These were nocturnal insects, and at night there were probably a lot of activity in terms of insects and their predators. The katydids want to be able to call out to the mate, to sing their love song — but at the same time they don’t want to attract a predator like a frog or lizard.”

The KU researcher collaborated with Jun-Jie Gu, Ge-Xia Qiao, and Dong Ren from the Capital Normal University and Institute of Zoology in Beijing, along with Fernando Montealegre-Zapata and Daniel Robert at the University of Bristol.

News Type:
Research News