The inherent “coolness” of insects

Two weeks ago, during on of our few free moments, I was checking my twitter account and stumbled on a great article by Paul Manning, a PhD student at Oxford University (and great science communicator and illustrator). Titled « Why we should learn to love all insects – not just the ones that work for us », this article touched on something pervasive when entomologists talk about their research: the fact that people seem to only care about insects in the light of ecosystem services.

Now, even though my research interest lies primarily in this particular subject, I am also an entomologist in the greater sense of the term and think insects are inherently fascinating. But for most people, this is hard to conceive. Insects, maybe because of their small size and their slightly creepy ways to get around, do not have the benefit of being seen as charismatic animals like mammals and birds. It is therefore harder to get people interested in the incredible adaptations (physiological, morphological, behavioural or ecological) that have arose in the insect world.

In the past few weeks, we have had the chance to meet researchers undeniably passionate about their work, many of whom worked on insects. Here’s only a few examples how fascinating those small creatures can be.

Let’s begin how they influence their ecosystem. Because of their small size, it is hard to imagine that insect herbivores can drive the evolution of chemical defense in organisms way bigger than they are, such as in the plant genus Inga. Those trees had to have the possibility to turn genes on and off to produce different compounds if they wanted to be able to keep up with the insects in an evolutionary arm’s race.

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An Atta colombica queen covered by her workers (Photo by Anne-Sophie Caron)

But insects are also interesting at the scale of their genome and its expression. Ehab Abouheif, from McGill University, gave an amazing talk on phenotypic plasticity in ants. He showed us how vestigial structures have controlling effects on size in ant colonies, enlightening the mechanisms behind the huge amount of phenotypic variation within an individual species.

Finally, Don Windsor, staff scientist at STRI (and my co-supervisor!) shared with us his knowledge of leaf beetles. Because of familiarity with the beetles’ natural history, he is able to discover unusual patterns that would go unnoticed by the untrained eye. That way, he saw a species of the genus Doryphora who’s offspring practice cannibalism during their first meal, some species where there are high levels of maternal care (Platyphora microspina only lays 4 live offsprings!) and high polymorphism within species, with some species having 6 different morphs. This also echoes some of the research done in Heliconius butterflies, where wings patterns vary within species across geographically scales.

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A leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) in its rightful place (Photo by Anne-Sophie Caron)

I have, hopefully, succeeded in convincing you of the coolness of insects (and also suggest you to check out Paul’s blog for more examples!)

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