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Science News

December 2012

Lorna Steel and collaborators have produced a paper that shows that modern-day killer whales are adapted to use the same hunting and feeding mechanisms as ancient crocodiles from more than a hundred million years ago.


They discovered that two crocodylians that grew to over 4m long and swam in Britain's shallow seas around 150 million years ago, were adapted to eat  prey similar to that of modern-day killer whales. Dakosaurus and Plesiosuchus both had robustly-built skulls and their anatomy indicates the capability to deliver great biting force.



Reconstructions showing the maximum body lengths for the Geosaurini genera present in the late Kimmeridgian-early Tithonian of Western Europe. 

The species from top to bottom are: Geosaurus giganteus, Dakosaurus maximus, Torvoneustes carpenteri and Plesiosuchus manselii. The maximum known body lengths of Torvoneustes and Geosaurus are from Young et al. [14], while those of Dakosaurus and Plesiosuchus are from this paper. The human diver is 1.8 m in height. All metriorhynchid life reconstructions are by Dmitry Bogdanov.  From Young et al. (2012) Creative Commons Attribution License for image and caption.


What is of particular interest is the parallel with the two types of North Atlantic killer whale: one smaller type which eats mainly fish prey, often by suction, and which has extensive wear and breakage on the teeth. The second larger type has little tooth breakage and eats other cetaceans. 


In the ancient crocodylians, there is extensive evidence for a similar dichotomy - in short Plesiosuchus is larger and shows little dental wear, with a wide effective gape that allowed many teeth to come into contact with the prey, so likely to be a specialist feeding on other marine reptiles. Dakosaurus was smaller, with considerable tooth wear and a shortened tooth row, suggesting a more general diet of smaller prey and suction feeding.  This difference in prey helps to explain how two large predators coexisted by avoiding competition.

Young, M.T., Brusatte, S.L., Brandalise de Andrade, M., Desojo, J.B., Beatty, B.L., STEEL, L., Fernandez, M.S., Sakamoto, M., Ruiz-Omenaca, J.I., & Schoch, R., 2012. The Cranial Osteology and Feeding Ecology of the Metriorhynchid Crocodylomorph Genera Dakosaurus and Plesiosuchus from the Late Jurassic of Europe. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44985. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044985



Posted by C Lowry Dec 13, 2012

Publications for the previous 4 to 5 weeks (Search done 12th December)

Search on the basis of ‘Nat SAME Hist SAME Mus* SAME Lon*’ using Web of Science + TRING




ELANGOVAN, P., HEZEL, D.C., HOWARD, L., ARMSTRONG, R. & ABEL, R.L. 2012. PhaseQuant: A tool for quantifying tomographic data sets of geological specimens. Computers & Geosciences, 48: 323-329.  (Scientific Associate, Core funded)

Thorne, R., Roberts, S. & HERRINGTON, R. 2012. The formation and evolution of the Bitincke nickel laterite deposit, Albania. Mineralium Deposita, 47(8): 933-947. 



Di MARTINO, E. & TAYLOR, P.D. 2012. Pyrisinellidae, a new family of anascan cheilostome bryozoans. Zootaxa(3534): 1-20. 

Edwards, D., SELDEN, P.A. & Axe, L. 2012. Selective Feeding In An Early Devonian Terrestrial Ecosystem. Palaios, 27(7-8): 509-522. 

LEGG, D.A., Sutton, M.D., EDGECOMBE, G.D. & Caron, J.B. 2012. Cambrian bivalved arthropod reveals origin of arthrodization. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 279(1748): 4699-4704. 

MA, X., Hou, X., EDGECOMBE, G.D. & Strausfeld, N.J. 2012. Complex brain and optic lobes in an early Cambrian arthropod. Nature, 490(7419): 258-261. 

OWEN, H.G. 2012. The Gault Group (Early Cretaceous, Albian), in East Kent, SE England; its lithology and ammonite biozonation. Proceedings of the Geologists Association, 123(5): 742-765. 

SMITH, A.B., Lloyd, G.T. & McGowan, A.J. 2012. Phanerozoic marine diversity: rock record modelling provides an independent test of large-scale trends. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 279(1746): 4489-4495. 

Torsvik, T.H. & COCKS, L.R.M. 2012. From Wegener until now: the development of our understanding of Earth's Phanerozoic evolution. Geologica Belgica, 15(3): 181-192. 

Torsvik, T.H., Van der Voo, R., Preeden, U., Mac Niocaill, C., Steinberger, B., Doubrovine, P.V., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., Domeier, M., Gaina, C., Tohver, E., Meert, J.G., McCausland, P.J.A. & COCKS, L.R.M. 2012. Phanerozoic polar wander, palaeogeography and dynamics. Earth-Science Reviews, 114(3-4): 325-368. 



Aoudjehane, H.C., Avice, G., Barrat, J.A., Boudouma, O., Chen, G., Duke, M.J.M., Franchi, I.A., Gattacceca, J., GRADY, M.M., Greenwood, R.C., Herd, C.D.K., Hewins, R., Jambon, A., Marty, B., Rochette, P., SMITH, C.L., Sautter, V., Verchovsky, A., Weber, P. & Zanda, B. 2012. Tissint Martian Meteorite: A Fresh Look at the Interior, Surface, and Atmosphere of Mars. Science, 338(6108): 785-788. 




Han, F.L., BARRETT, P.M., Butler, R.J. & Xu, X. 2012. Postcranial anatomy of Jeholosaurus Shangyuanensis (Dinosauria, Ornithischia) from the Lower Cretaceous Yixian formation of China. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 32(6): 1370-1395. 

Blumenschine, R.J., Stanistreet, I.G., Njau, J.K., Bamford, M.K., Masao, F.T., Albert, R.M., Stollhofen, H., ANDREWS, P., Prassack, K.A., McHenry, L.J., Fernandez-Jalvo, Y., Camilli, E.L. & Ebert, J.I. 2012. Environments and hominin activities across the FLK Peninsula during Zinjanthropus times (1.84 Ma), Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Journal of Human Evolution, 63(2): 364-383. 

Nesbitt, S.J., BARRETT, P.M., Werning, S., Sidor, C.A. & Charig, A.J. 2013. The oldest dinosaur? A Middle Triassic dinosauriform from Tanzania Biology  Letters, 9 (1): doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0949  

Rücklin, M., Donoghue, P.C.J., JOHANSON, Z., Trinajstic, K., Marone, F., Stampanoni, M., et al. 2012. Development of teeth and jaws in the earliest jawed vertebrates Nature, 491: 748-751. 

Stuart, A.J. & LISTER, A.M. 2012. Extinction chronology of the woolly rhinoceros Coelodonta antiquitatis in the context of late Quaternary megafaunal extinctions in northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 51: 1-17. 






CARPENTER, D., HAMMOND, P.M., SHERLOCK, E., LIDGETT, A., LEIGH, K. & EGGLETON, P. 2012. Biodiversity of soil macrofauna in the New Forest: a benchmark study across a national park landscape. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21(13): 3385-3410. 

GRUHL, A. & OKAMURA, B. 2012. Development and myogenesis of the vermiform Buddenbrockia (Myxozoa) and implications for cnidarian body plan evolution. Evodevo, 3: Article 10. 

HAYES, P., Justine, J.L. & BOXSHALL, G.A. 2012. The genus Caligus Muller, 1785 (Copepoda: Siphonostomatoida): two new species from reef associated fishes in New Caledonia, and some nomenclatural problems resolved. Zootaxa(3534): 21-39. 

Juttner, I., CHIMONIDES, P.J. & Ormerod, S.J. 2012. Developing a diatom monitoring network in an urban river-basin: initial assessment and site selection. Hydrobiologia, 695(1): 137-151. 

Kaji, T., Maran, B.A.V., Kondoh, Y., Ohtsuka, S., BOXSHALL, G.A. & Tsukagoshi, A. 2012. The lunule of caligid copepods: an evolutionarily novel structure. Evolution & Development, 14(6): 465-475. 

Norlinder, E., Nygren, A., WIKLUND, H. & Pleijel, F. 2012. Phylogeny of scale-worms (Aphroditiformia, Annelida), assessed from 18SrRNA, 28SrRNA, 16SrRNA, mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit I (COI), and morphology. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 65(2): 490-500. 

WILLIAMS, S.T. 2012. Advances in molecular systematics of the vetigastropod superfamily Trochoidea. Zoologica Scripta, 41(6): 571-595. 




Adl, S.M., Simpson, A.G.B., Lane, C.E., Lukes, J., BASS, D., Bowser, S.S., Brown, M.W., Burki, F., Dunthorn, M., Hampl, V., Heiss, A., Hoppenrath, M., Lara, E., le Gall, L., Lynn, D.H., McManus, H., Mitchell, E.A.D., Mozley-Stanridge, S.E., Parfrey, L.W., Pawlowski, J., Rueckert, S., Shadwick, L., Schoch, C.L., Smirnov, A. & Spiegel, F.W. 2012. The Revised Classification of Eukaryotes. Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology, 59(5): 429-493. 

Hernandez-Triana, L.M., Crainey, J.L., HALL, A., Fatih, F., MACKENZIE-DODDS, J., SHELLEY, A.J., Zhou, X., Post, R.J., Gregory, T.R. & Hebert, P.D.N. 2012. DNA barcodes reveal cryptic genetic diversity within the blackfly subgenus Trichodagmia Enderlein (Diptera: Simuliidae: Simulium) and related taxa in the New World. Zootaxa(3514): 43-69. 

JUNGBLUT, A.D., Vincent, W.F. & Lovejoy, C. 2012. Eukaryotes in Arctic and Antarctic cyanobacterial mats. Fems Microbiology Ecology, 82(2): 416-428. 

JUNGBLUT, A.D., Wood, S.A., Hawes, I., Webster-Brown, J. & Harris, C. 2012. The Pyramid Trough Wetland: environmental and biological diversity in a newly created Antarctic protected area. Fems Microbiology Ecology, 82(2): 356-366. 

SIMS, P.A. & Witkowski, J. 2012. Generic limits within the Eupodiscaceae: I. Observations on three unusual species of Cerataulus, with reference to the type species, C. turgidus. Diatom Research, 27(4): 223-236. 

Weerakoon, G., Aptroot, A., Lumbsch, H.T., WOLSELEY, P.A., Wijeyaratne, S.C. & GUEIDAN, C. 2012. New molecular data on Pyrenulaceae from Sri Lanka reveal two well-supported groups within this family. Lichenologist, 44(5): 639-647. 




BRAY, R.A. & Cribb, T.H. 2012. Reorganisation of the superfamily Lepocreadioidea Odhner, 1905 based on an inferred molecular phylogeny. Systematic Parasitology, 83(3): 169-177. 

Eiras, J.C., Lu, Y.S., GIBSON, D.I., Fiala, I., Saraiva, A., Cruz, C. & Santos, M.J. 2012. Synopsis of the species of Chloromyxum Mingazinni, 1890 (Myxozoa: Myxosporea: Chloromyxidae). Systematic Parasitology, 83(3): 203-225. 

Hernandez-Triana, L.M., Crainey, J.L., HALL, A., Fatih, F., MACKENZIE-DODDS, J., SHELLEY, A.J., Zhou, X., Post, R.J., Gregory, T.R. & Hebert, P.D.N. 2012. DNA barcodes reveal cryptic genetic diversity within the blackfly subgenus Trichodagmia Enderlein (Diptera: Simuliidae: Simulium) and related taxa in the New World. Zootaxa(3514): 43-69. 

Huhtamo, E., Moureau, G., COOK, S., Julkunen, O., Putkuri, N., Kurkela, S., Uzcategui, N.Y., HARBACH, R.E., Gould, E.A., Vapalahti, O. & de Lamballerie, X. 2012. Novel insect-specific flavivirus isolated from northern Europe. Virology, 433(2): 471-478. 

LEFEBVRE, F., Wielgoss, S., Nagasawa, K. & Moravec, F. 2012. On the origin of Anguillicoloides crassus, the invasive nematode of anguillid eels. Aquatic Invasions, 7(4): 443-453. 

Swiderski, Z., Miquel, J., Marigo, A.M. & GIBSON, D.I. 2012. Ultrastructure of vitellogenesis and vitellocytes in the trypanorhynch cestode Aporhynchus menezesi, a parasite of the velvet belly lanternshark Etmopterus spinax. Comptes Rendus Biologies, 335(9): 573-584. 

WEBSTER, B.L., EMERY, A.M., Webster, J.P., GOUVRAS, A., Garba, A., Diaw, O., Seye, M.M., Tchuente, L.A.T., Simoonga, C., Mwanga, J., Lange, C., Kariuki, C., Mohammed, K.A., Stothard, J.R. & ROllINSON, D. 2012. Genetic Diversity within Schistosoma haematobium: DNA Barcoding Reveals Two Distinct Groups. Plos Neglected Tropical Diseases, 6(10). 



Cantonati, M., Fureder, L., Gerecke, R., Juttner, I. & COX, E.J. 2012. Crenic habitats, hotspots for freshwater biodiversity conservation: toward an understanding of their ecology. Freshwater Science, 31(2): 463-480. 

Dong, S.S., Schafer-Verwimp, A., Meinecke, P., Feldberg, K., Bombosch, A., Pocs, T., Schmidt, A.R., Reitner, J., SCHNEIDER, H. & Heinrichs, J. 2012. Tramps, narrow endemics and morphologically cryptic species in the epiphyllous liverwort Diplasiolejeunea. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 65(2): 582-594. 

Iamonico, D. & JARVIS, C.E. 2012. Lectotypification of Linnaean names in the genus Celosia L. (Amaranthaceae). Taxon, 61(5): 1101-1102. 

Iamonico, D., Sukhorukov, A.P. & JARVIS, C.E. 2012. Lectotypification of the Linnaean name Anabasis foliosa L. (Chenopodiaceae). Taxon, 61(5): 1103-1104. 

KNAPP, S. 2012. The Life of a Leaf [Book Review]. Nature, 490(7420): 339-340. 

Mols-Mortensen, A., Neefus, C.D., Nielsen, R., Gunnarsson, K., Egilsdottir, S., Pedersen, P.M. & BRODIE, J. 2012. New insights into the biodiversity and generic relationships of foliose Bangiales (Rhodophyta) in Iceland and the Faroe Islands. European Journal of Phycology, 47(2): 146-159. 

Van de Vijver, B., Ector, L. & COX, E.J. 2012. Ultrastructure of Diatomella balfouriana with a discussion of septum-like structures in diatom genera. Diatom Research, 27(4): 213-221. 




Burckhardt, D. & OUVRARD, D. 2012. A revised classification of the jumping plant-lice (Hemiptera: Psylloidea). Zootaxa(3509): 1-34. 

CARPENTER, D., HAMMOND, P.M., SHERLOCK, E., LIDGETT, A., LEIGH, K. & EGGLETON, P. 2012. Biodiversity of soil macrofauna in the New Forest: a benchmark study across a national park landscape. Biodiversity and Conservation, 21(13): 3385-3410.

Dankittipakul, P. & BECCALONI, J. 2012. Validation and new synonymies proposed for Cheiracanthium species from South and Southeast Asia (Araneae, Clubionidae). Zootaxa(3510): 77-86. 

KUHLMANN, M. 2012. Two new species of the South African endemic bee genus Rediviva Friese (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Melittidae). Zootaxa(3517): 71-78. 

Oberprieler, S.K., RASNITSYN, A.P. & Brothers, D.J. 2012. The first wasps from the Upper Jurassic of Australia (Hymenoptera: Evanioidea, Praeaulacidae). Zootaxa(3503): 47-54.  (

Pham, N.T., BROAD, G.R. & Zwakhals, K. 2012. First record of the genus Dolichomitus Smith (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae: Pimplinae) from Vietnam, with description of one new species. Zootaxa(3519): 77-84. 

Veijalainen, A., Wahlberg, N., BROAD, G.R., Erwin, T.L., Longino, J.T. & Saaksjarvi, I.E. 2012. Unprecedented ichneumonid parasitoid wasp diversity in tropical forests. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 279(1748): 4694-4698. 



BRITZ, R. & Toledo-Piza, M. 2012. Egg surface structure of the freshwater toadfish Thalassophryne amazonica (Teleostei: Batrachoididae) with information on its distribution and natural habitat. Neotropical Ichthyology, 10(3): 593-599. 




Burnham, A.D. & BERRY, A.J. 2012. An experimental study of trace element partitioning between zircon and melt as a function of oxygen fugacity. Geochimica Et Cosmochimica Acta, 95: 196-212. 

Chakhmouradian, A.R. & ZAITSEV, A.N. 2012. Rare Earth Mineralization in Igneous Rocks: Sources and Processes. Elements, 8(5): 347-353. 

ELANGOVAN, P., HEZEL, D.C., HOWARD, L., ARMSTRONG, R. & ABEL, R.L. 2012. PhaseQuant: A tool for quantifying tomographic data sets of geological specimens. Computers & Geosciences, 48: 323-329. 

Hernandez-Triana, L.M., Crainey, J.L., HALL, A., Fatih, F., MACKENZIE-DODDS, J., SHELLEY, A.J., Zhou, X., Post, R.J., Gregory, T.R. & Hebert, P.D.N. 2012. DNA barcodes reveal cryptic genetic diversity within the blackfly subgenus Trichodagmia Enderlein (Diptera: Simuliidae: Simulium) and related taxa in the New World. Zootaxa(3514): 43-69. 


Life Sciences Seminar


Sap-suckers of the Tree of Life: how closely are they related to their feeding branches?



David Ouvrard

Terrestrial Invertebrates, Dept. of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 19 of December 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)



Sternorrhyncha comprise four super-families among the most damaging agricultural pests. Furthermore, Coccoidea (scale insects - 8000 species), Aphidoidea (aphids, phylloxerans, and adelgids - 5000 species), Psylloidea (jumping plant-lice - 3800 species) and Aleyrodoidea (whiteflies - 1500 species) are driving ecosystems as primary consumers of phloem sap. Various degrees of insect/plant associations, from strict monophagy to high polyphagy, are observed among them and at different classification levels.


Until now, several assumptions of co- or ‘parallel-’ evolution between the insects and their host-plants have been made, but rarely using a phylogenetic framework to test these hypotheses. Focusing on Psylloidea, I will trace the macroevolution of these phytophagous insects, from fossil proto-homopterans to the extant fauna, based on the evolution of some striking morphological characters.


In parallel, the large-scale analysis of patterns of associations between insects and plants has been made possible using the global datasets compiled and organised in databases such as “Psyl’list” or “White-Files”, originally oriented towards taxonomic information dissemination only. The synthesis of recent taxonomic studies into a revised classification of the Psylloidea offers a framework for further phylogenetic reconstructions, a research basis in the fields of Ecology and Conservation, as well as a management tool for collaborators involved in Integrated Pest Management



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Life Sciences Seminar

Inferring the diversification of land plants at and in the shadow of the Roof of the World


Harald Schneider

Plants, Dept. of Life Sciences, NHM


Wednesday 12 of December 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)

Orogenic events in earth history, e.g. mountain formation, have made a profound impact on the assembly of biological diversity. For example, recent studies of the biodiversity of South America recovered strong evidence that the Cenozoic rise of the Andeans triggered the rapid diversification of many lineages of vascular plants.


However, relatively little attention has been given to the effect of the rise of the Himalaya on plant diversity. The rise of this mountain chains were triggered by the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian continent 70 million years ago but major uplifts date back to more recent times. Especially the rather recent formation of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, around 3-4 million years ago, had a considerable impact on the monsoon climates in South East Asia. Thus the rise of this plateau affected not only the evolution of plants adapted to the alpine conditions at the high altitudes of the Himalaya but also the expansion of xeric habitats in central Asia and the enhanced monsoons affecting South East Asia and South Asia.


The hypothesis of the impact of the rise of the Himalaya on plant diversity in South East Asia is studied employing mainly phylogenetic approaches that incorporate divergence time estimates, ancestral area reconstruction, inference of niche evolution, and estimates of diversification rates. The analyses also incorporate evidence from micro-paleontological research.


Comparative assessment of the existing and newly generated phylogenetic hypotheses for a wide range of angiosperms and ferns recovered evidence supporting the hypothesis of a substantial impact of the rise of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau on the assembly of lineage diversity. This result is consistent with palaeoclimate reconstructions that are based on pollen and spore record. In comparison, the recovered patterns indicate the involvement of different processes in response to the Cenozoic mountain formations in South America and South East Asia.


The presentation summarises research that was carried out during my time as a senior visiting professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Besides the presentation of the results of the research, I will also touch on issues related to the current research conditions in China.


Harald Schneider




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Helena Wiklund and Adrian Glover, together with collaborators from the USA and Sweden, have described six new species in the polychaete worm genus Ophryotrocha. The six new species were discovered on five whale-falls and two wood-falls in deep-sea water off the Californian coast.


Worms in the genus Ophryotrocha were until recently only known from shallow seas rich in nutrients, but as deep sea exploration has progressed, they have been found to be common in organically-enriched habitats such as hydrothermal vents,  cold seeps, whale-falls and in  areas impacted by human pollution (such as underneath fish farms), and  may well play an important ecosystem function role in the biodegradation  and decomposition of organic-rich materials. The new data also  highlight the poorly known biodiversity of the deep sea, and how  deep-sea species evolved.


The scientists have examined both the morphology and DNA of the worms.  Identification of one of the species is only possible by looking at differences in their DNA - its physical form is otherwise identical to another species found in the Atlantic. This is of additional interest because some marine species are found in all oceans but others will be found in only one.  The difference in DNA suggests the evolution of different species as a result of geographical separation.  It is suggested that there will be significantly more diversity in this and other groups in deep sea habitats with implications for understanding of these mysterious ecosystems.

Wiklund H, Altamira I, Glover AG, Smith CR, Baco A, Dahlgren TG. (2012) Systematics and biodiversity of Ophryotrocha (Annelida, Dorvilleidae) with descriptions of six new species from deep-sea whale-fall and wood-fall habitats in the north-east Pacific. Systematics and Biodiversity 10(2): 243-259.


Department of Life Sciences seminar


Insect diversity and pest control in the anthropogenic habitats of NE China


Jan Axmacher

Department of Geography, University College London


Friday 7 December 11:00
Sir Neil Chalmers seminar room, Darwin Centre LG16 (below Attenborough studio)



The natural environment of NE China has been altered by humans for thousands of years. Nonetheless, both intensity and spatial extend of these alterations have greatly increased since the middle of the last century. Agricultural production was greatly intensified, while the remaining natural forest cover was widely cleared. The severe environmental degradation which followed has led to an increased awareness of the importance of environmental issues in the last few decades, with re- and afforestation projects being currently established throughout China at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, agricultural practices following the maxim ‘the more, the better’ are also increasingly questioned, with the importance of biological pest control recognized as a potential cheap and less environmentally detrimental alternative to chemical pesticides.


Given these recent developments, I have started a number of collaborative research projects with the Chinese Agricultural University and the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences to investigate diversity and species composition of ground beetle assemblages in reforested habitats and the agricultural landscapes of the Hebei province, looking at both the diversity and potential pest control function of these mostly predatory beetles. Our research shows that the diversity of ground beetles varies strongly between different types of forest ecosystems, with naturally regenerating birch forests and open larch plantations showing a high abundance, but low diversity in carabids. Plantations of native oak and pine monocultures, as well as forests composed of a mixture of planted and naturally regenerating trees harbour distinctly higher diversity levels.


In the agricultural landscape, even very intensively managed double-cropping systems comprising of summer maize and winter wheat monocultures can support surprisingly high levels of ground beetle diversity, while cotton monocultures were found to harbour distinctly lower levels of carabid diversity. Landscape elements like the diversity of land-use types were found to have only a limited effect on the diversity of the ground beetle community at least in some of our study areas. A comparison of diversity patterns in ground beetles and geometrid moths finally showed that links between these highly diverse herbivore and insectivore taxa are highly complex, with distinctly different spatial patterns observed in these two families.




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Thomas Simonsen has published an invited peer-reviewed paper in Arthropod Structure and Development in collaboration with co-workers from the Finnish Museum of Natural History and Naturalis (Dutch Museum of Natural History) on the continuing importance of morphology in Lepidoptera systematics.


Taxonomy and systematics are areas of science that are focused on description, naming, classification and evolutionary relationships of living things.  Such science is the fundamental reason for the existence of large natural history collections, and traditionally the focus has been on morphology - the use of combinations of physical characters such as number of legs, wing patterns or body form.  The differences in these characters between species can be compared and allow identification - so a fly will have one pair of wings but a bee will have two pairs, for example. Over time, different species and groups have diverged as a result of evolution and in general become progressively more different in form.


However, while morphology is a key tool in understanding diversity, evolutionary difference can be seen also in molecules, particularly DNA.  DNA of different species can be compared and the degree of difference used to assess patterns of evolution and relationships.  The use of DNA in taxonomy and systematics is of increasing importance and museum collections are of great value in this new science - a purpose never suspected by those who started to assemble them in the 18th and 19th Centuries.


Wallace birdwing NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_056153_IA.jpgOrnithoptera croesus, Wallace's golden birdwing butterfly - a member of the Paplionidae family


Some scientists have argued that DNA alone will be used in future to assess diversity and to identify species: it is after all DNA differences that are the root cause of morphological difference - so why use both?  There are in fact a number of reasons why morphological techniques will be of continuing importance - Thomas and colleagues explore the relative value of morphology and molecular information for large groups of butterflies in this paper.


They reviewed the morphological characters that are important for understanding butterfly phylogeny and evolution in the context of large-scale molecular phylogenies (evolutionary classifications) of the group. In particular, they were interested in what the molecular evidence was able to tell them about the evolution of morphological features - so for example, were characters that are used to separate distantly related groups actually caused by large genetic differences?


They looked in particular at the families Papilionidae, Nymphalidae and Hesperiidae which have all been studied with a combination of morphological and molecular data in recent years. What they found was that a  scientifically more valuable classification emerged not from using either molecular or morphological techniques, but from using both in combination. They argue that morphology still has an immensely important role to play in butterfly (and insect) phylogenetics - including its value in understanding how the whole organism is important in evolutionary changes, natural selection and diversity.  


Simonsen, T. J., de Jong, R., Heikkilä, M. & Kaila, L. (2012). Butterfly morphology in a molecular age – does it still matter in butterfly systematics? Arthropod Structure and Development. 41: pp. 307-322.