EAST LANSING, Mich. The long-held belief that plant-eating insects in tropical forests are picky eaters that stay close to home dining only on locale-specific vegetation is being challenged by new research findings that suggest these insects feast on a broader menu of foliage and can be consistently found across hundreds of miles of tropical forestland.
These findings have significant implications related to the sustainability and conservation of these globally-important areas.
Michigan State University scientist Anthony Cognato and graduate student Jiri Hulcr were part of an international team that conducted this groundbreaking research, the results of which are described in the Aug.ust 9 online issue of the journal Nature. The group included scientists from Australia, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, New Guinea and the United States.
Tropical rain forests are home to a rich diversity of plants, birds, insects and other animals, said Hulcr, an entomology PhD doctoral student working with Cognato and co-author of the report. They also play an important role in our global climate and provide aesthetic, recreational and medicinal benefits. For these reasons and others, it is critical that we understand how these forests generate and sustain their diversity and what we can do to help conserve them.
The study included approximately 500 species of caterpillars, beetles and fruitfliesfruit flies from common plant-eating families and 175 species from four diverse plant groups across 28,950 square miles of contiguous lowland rain forest in Paupua, New Guinea.
Cognato and Hulcr were key collaborators on the project because of their expertise related to the biology and ecology of the bark and ambrosia beetle family, a model group of insects compoprised of 6,000 species worldwide, and one common to tropical rain forests.