Paleoentomology & Anthophila Lab (Michael S. Engel)
Diversity and Importance
The insects are the most diverse lineage of all life. They are also among the most ancient of terrestrial animal lineages, perhaps originating in the earliest of terrestrial ecosystems over 412 million years ago. Today entomologists are stunned by the diversity of the group and find little time to contend with the potentially hundreds of millions of insect species that may have existed throughout the entire, long history of the class. Yet, a paleontological perspective is critical for understanding the evolution of any group, particularly one as varied and important as the insects. Paleoentomology is a field that remains in its infancy although it is currently experiencing a Renaissance, principally in Europe.
The field is wide open and many discoveries are waiting to be made across the entirety of this vast class of animals. Research in paleoentomology focuses on all aspects of insect evolutionary history ranging from the Devonian to the Pleistocene and encompassing all insect orders, with an aim toward providing a natural synthesis between paleoentomology and neoentomology (e.g., Grimaldi & Engel, 2005, Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge University Press). Of particular interest are the Archaeognatha, Zygentoma, Odonatoptera, Palaeodictyopterida, Paoliidae, Embiodea, Zoraptera, Notoptera (Grylloblattodea and Mantophasmatodea), Dermaptera, Isoptera, Mantodea, Holophasmatodea, enigmatic Polyneoptera (Caloneurodea, Chresmodidae), Psocoptera, basal Phthiraptera, Thysanoptera, some Hemiptera, Miomoptera, Coleoptera, Neuropterida (Megaloptera, Raphidioptera, Neuroptera), Hymenoptera, Mecoptera, basal Siphonaptera, Strepsiptera, Trichoptera, and basal Lepidoptera. Please also visit the Paleontological Institute and Invertebrate Paleontology websites.
A Focus on Bees
Another focus of the lab is the systematics and biology of living and fossil bees (Apoidea: Anthophila). The bees are among the most famous and beloved of all insects. Their role as pollinators is one of the most significant insect-angiosperm associations known in the biological world. Bees have served this vital role for nearly 125 million years. The fossil record of bees is rather sparse, with relatively few specimens known from which to paint a picture of past bee diversity. Perhaps the most important fossil fauna of bees is the diversity of taxa present in middle Eocene (Lutetian; ca. 45 million years ago) Baltic amber.
The Eocene bee fauna of Europe was utterly different from that occurring in the same region today. The climate of Europe during the Eocene was closer to that of a tropical forest than it was to the cold temperate habitat that we are familiar with. Other interesting bee faunas from the past are the roughly contemporaneous ambers of Chiapas, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, both of which are significantly younger than the Baltic amber.
Of an intermediate age between the Mexican and Dominican ambers and the Baltic amber is the extensive Eocene-Oligocene deposit of Florissant, Colorado. Florissant preserves a remarkable bee fauna, but its value is hampered by the quality of preservation. Florissant fossils are preserved as compressions with little or no relief. The matrix is frequently not fine enough to resolve the most minute details of bee anatomy which are critical for positive identification and meaningful comparison with amber fossils or modern species. Nonetheless, Florissant provides an important, albeit limited, window into the Eocene-Oligocene bee fauna of central North America. Other important sites with fossils bees include Iki Island (Japan), Rott (Germany), Oeningen (Germany), Radoboj (Croatia), Shandong (China), Messel (Germany), Eckfeld (Germany), and Rubielos (Spain), among many others.
Monographic work on various living bee groups, particularly those genera of the subfamily Halictinae as well as sundry cleptoparasitic lineages, is on going in the lab so as to document the bee diversity, provides aids to the identification of genera and species, to build baseline faunal data for regions throughout the world, and to explore the implications of these species for understanding apoid evolution and biology.