Insects interacting with plants play mighty roles on Earth for millennia
Some systems that sustain life on Earth have been operating for a really long time. Cycles of oxygen and water come to mind. Cycles of minerals also come to mind. But what about the green world of plants around us? And what of their abundant friends, the insects?
Insects and plants have been interacting on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They interact in a complex array of relationships. Insects are physically small. But their ecological roles on the planet are mighty. They provide structure to the ecosystems we rely on.
Take a walk outside. It is hard to overlook insects in action. Rifle through a plant and you'll find a menagerie of insects. They’re looking for food. Some are making holes. Some are scraping off plant tissues. And some are skeletonizing leaves. Others are piercing plants. Some are sucking up sap. And others are making squiggly paths as they mine leaf tissues. Plants may also serve as nurseries for insect larvae. Adult insects leave distinctive scars where they have inserted their eggs. Some insects even co-opt developmental machinery of plants. They make tumor-like galls. These provide protection and food for the larvae.
Many insects are also pollinators. They enable plant reproduction while scoring a food reward. Pollination is the foundation not only of natural ecosystems, but also of our food supply. Without insects, we would be hard-pressed to feed our expanding human populations on Earth. On the other hand, defending crops from insect herbivores is also part of agriculture. Insects have evolved a huge variety of adaptations for exploiting plant organs and tissues.
Paleobiologists who study fossils for evidence of insect-plant interactions have traced damage marks on 385-million-year-old leaves to insect feeding. The fossil evidence points to pollination also having a long history on Earth – showing up an estimated 125-170 million years ago. Compare those ancient relationships to our mere 200,000 years of human history on Earth.
Scientists like Smithsonian Paleobiologist Dr. Conrad Labandeira continue to gather evidence to understand the deep history of plant and insect relationships on Earth. Learn more about Conrad’s research in the "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on Thursday, Feb 8, 2018. It airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EST on the Q?rius website. During Fossil Forensics: Plant and Insect Relationships, Conrad will take you on a journey through time. He will also answer your questions live. You can also get teaching resources to use with the webcast.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are insects important to our planet?
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