Pam Eastlick

Pam Eastlick

What’s the dominant life form on Earth? Humans, of course, right? Not even close. That honor probably belongs to the plants or the bacteria, but if you’re talking about animals, the answer is insects.

An international team of more than 100 researchers has published the first roadmap of insect evolution. The results reconstruct the insect “tree of life” and answer longstanding questions about the origins and evolution of the most species-rich group of organisms on Earth.

The results, published by scientists from the 1KITE project or 1,000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution, http://www.1kite.org, are essential to understanding the millions of living insect species that shape our living space and both support and threaten our natural resources.

Using a data set of 144 carefully chosen species, 1KITE scientists made reliable estimates on the dates of origin and relationships of all major insect groups based on the enormous molecular dataset they collected. They show that insects originated at the same time as the earliest terrestrial plants about 480 million years ago. Their analyses suggest that insects and plants shaped the earliest terrestrial ecosystems together, with insects developing wings to fly 400 million years ago, long before any other animal could do so, and at nearly the same time that land plants first grew substantially upwards to form forests.

The goal to analyze a gigantic amount of insect genetic information posed a major challenge to 1KITE's bioinformatics and scientific computing team and they discovered the available software couldn’t handle the enormous amounts of data. So the team developed novel software to handle the "big data" which is another notable accomplishment of the 1KITE team and lays a theoretical foundation for future analyses of other very large data sets.

When you have to develop new software to handle the data you collect, you know you’re studying something big. But it turns out that’s not the only big thing that’s been recently discovered about insects.

Researchers in Brazil have discovered a vast array of regularly spaced, still-inhabited termite mounds in northeastern Brazil that cover an area the size of Great Britain. Some of the mounds are over 4,000 years old.

The mounds, which are easily visible on Google Earth, are not nests. They’re the result of the termites’ excavation of a network of interconnected underground tunnels. Their activities over thousands of years have resulted in huge quantities of soil deposited in approximately 200 million cone-shaped mounds, each about 8 feet tall and 9 feet across. The amount of soil that’s been excavated is over 2 cubic miles, the equivalent to 4,000 great pyramids of Giza, and it represents one of the biggest animal-built structures on Earth. Soil samples collected from the centers of 11 mounds indicate the mounds were filled 690 to 3,820 years ago. That makes them about as old as the world's oldest known termite mounds in Africa.

The researchers say there are many questions still to pursue. For instance, no one knows how these termite colonies are physically structured because a queen chamber of the species has never been found.

The kids in the Planetarium used to say to me “Miss, we’re destroying the Earth!” And I always said “No, we’re not. We’re simply making it impossible for us to live here. When we go, we’ll take a lot of species with us, but life will go on. The cockroaches were here long before the dinosaurs and they’ll be here long after we’re gone.” And I suspect the cockroach relatives, the termites, will be here for a long time too.

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