Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bugs that fly

Lately I've been watching a lecture series by Professor Anthony Martin called "Major Transitions in Evolution." And frankly, it is a bit of a problem. Too many Latin-derived names of extinct creatures, too many distinctions between 490, 450 or 420 million years ago, too much cladistics, too fast.

But sometimes the ideas pop out, as Martin wants them to. Such is the case with flying insects.

The study of when and how insects grew wings and began to fly - the first powered flight ever - is fascinating. It relates to the amazing ability of insects to evolve. They reproduce like crazy and deliver offspring like there's no tomorrow. So they can evolve to meet any and seemingly all environmental changes. Flying is that kind of an evolutionary change, which happened time and again. (The most famous flying bug, an early dragonfly, had a wingspan two and a half feet across. It could eat you.)

But what is interesting about flying insects is that they made the world as we see it. First, they co-evolved with plants to pollinate them. From that came fruits, which were essential for the later evolution of primates like us. Second, they became major vectors for disease, which also greatly affected primate evolution.

I'm not sure I need to know Latin-derived nomenclature not to cringe next time I see a dragonfly.

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