Insect Evolution


Evolution of Insects

Of related interest:
Insect Classification
Insect Fossils Classification



Ambush bug in fossil amber - Order HemipteraJust as the Paleozoic is often called the age of the trilobite, modern time is often called the age of the insect. The insect fossil record extends back some 400 million years to the lower Devonian. The Pterygotes (winged forms) underwent a major radiation in the Carboniferous. The Endopterygota* underwent a another major radiation in the Permian. Survivors of the mass extinction at the PT boundary evolved in the Triassic to what are essentially the modern Insecta Orders that persist to modern times. Most modern insect families appeared in the Jurassic, and further diversity probably in genera occurred in the Cretaceous. It is believed that by the Tertiary, there existed many of what are still modern genera; hence, most insects in amber are, indeed, members of extant genera. What seems most fascinating is that insects diversified in a brief 100 million years (give or take) into the modern forms that exist with minor change in modern times.

Insect evolution is characterized by rapid adaptation with selective pressures exerted by environment. Rapid adaptation is furthered by their high fecundity. It appears the rapid radiation's, and to this day the appearance of new species result in insects filling all available environmental niches. Insect evolution is clodely related to the evolution of flowering plants. Insect adaptations include feeding on flowers and related Assasin bug in fossil amberstructures with some 20% of extant insects depend on flowers, nectar or pollen for their food source. This symbiotic relationship is even more paramount in evolution considering that about 2/3 of flowering plants are insect pollinated. Insects are also vectors of many pathogens that may even have been responsible for the decimation or extinction of some mammalian species.

Compared to other organisms, insects have not left a particularly robust fossil record. Other than in amber, most insects are terrestrial and only preserved under very special conditions such as at the edge of freshwater lakes. Yet in amber, age is limited since large resin production by trees developed later than the ancient insects. Interestingly, while some 1/3 of non-insect species are extinct fossils, it is believed that only 1/100th insects are extinct fossils.

*Endopterygota is comprised by the orders of insects which are holo-metabolous, have larval (vs. nymphal) stages, and are separated from the Exopterygota in that they have an internal vs. external wing development. Examples from this group are those from Orders Coleoptera (beetles), Hemiptera (true bugs) and Thysanoptera (thrips).