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Fossil Patagonian plants show high insect feeding diversity 52 million years ago

South America has the most biodiversity of any major region today and according to an international team of researchers, that biodiversity began at least 52 million years ago.

"What defines terrestrial ecology is plant insect interactions," says Dr. Peter Wilf, assistant professor of geosciences and the John T. Ryan Jr. Faculty Fellow. "But there is very little information about the history of insects eating plants in South America, despite the tremendous number of plant and animal species there today. This study provides the first window to the past on the South American continent's ancient diversity and abundance of insects on plants 52 million years ago. This ancient biodiversity is a legacy that will help us understand today's South American diversity."

Wilf, working with Conrad C. Labandeira, National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution; Kirk R. Johnson, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and N. Ruben Cuneo, Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio (MEF), Trelew, Argentina, looked at plant diversity and insect feeding richness on fossil plants and compared fossil leaves collected at Laguna del Hunco, Patagonia, Argentina, that date to the globally warm Eocene, with fossil leaves collected at three Eocene sites in North America Republic, Washington; Green River, Utah; and Sourdough, Wyoming. The researchers looked at the types and amounts of insect consumption on the fossilized leaves at all four locations.

"All four floras are very rich in fossil plant species and the Laguna del Hunco flora is the most diverse of the group," Wilf says. They report in today's (June 20) online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that by 52 million years ago, plants and insects in Patagonia were more diverse and abundant than those at that time in North America.

"We still do not know when Patagonia became that diverse," says Wilf. "We have to go back in time some more to find the beginning of increased
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Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
aem1@psu.edu
814-865-9481
Penn State
15-Jun-2005


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