"Tree of Life" Study Reveals Evolutionary History of Beetles

July 28, 2015 - From ladybugs to fireflies, beetles have captivated naturalists and others throughout history. Now an international team of beetle experts is providing a glimpse of life before dinosaurs by assembling a new view of one of the largest branches of the Tree of Life.

Dr. Duane McKenna, assistant professor of biological sciences, was lead author of a study published recently in Systematic Entomology that used DNA sequences and other information to reconstruct the evolutionary history of Earth's most diverse group of animals.

"There are nearly 400,000 known species of beetles, and easily more than 1 million total species alive today," said McKenna. "This work provides new insights into relationships among the major groups of beetles, including groups that contain species with important ecological roles – for example, pollinators, plant-feeders, predators, and recyclers of wood, leaves, and dung, and important pest species. It also reveals new insights into the evolutionary history of beetles, including the age of beetles (more than 250 million years), timing and patterns of beetle diversification, and when and how certain habits like plant feeding likely originated. While focused on beetle relationships and evolution, our work also has more general implications for understanding the origins and evolution of terrestrial biological diversity."

Combing the world for 10 years, the scientists collected DNA of both common and rare beetles in their quest to unravel some of the mysteries behind the development of this exceptionally successful group of animals. They examined the DNA of nearly 400 carefully selected species that represented all major lineages of beetles. "Our reconstruction reveals that low extinction rates, protected wings and ancient interaction with plants, fungi and microorganisms appear to be the main keys to their success," said McKenna.

Read the paper at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/syen.12132/abstract.

Contact: Gabrielle Maxey