By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
University of Washington scientists placed cameras on beetles to study them, CNET reported. Tiny backpacks were outfitted for the insects with mounted cameras that include panning controls. It’s a good time for a refresher on insects.
According to CNET, scientists are branching out in the endeavor of strapping tiny backpacks to living creatures. “Fruit flies, pigeons, and bees have had their moments; now it’s time for beetles that wear tiny panoramic cameras,” the article said. “The [University of Washington] released a video that highlights how the camera works by streaming black-and-white footage to a phone. The app also lets researchers command the camera to rotate for panoramic views.”
As University of Washington scientists take a first-person journey through the insect world, it’s a good idea to brush up on what they may find and why.
What Qualifies as an Insect?
Insects vary widely, so it can help to have a starting point in order to frame the discussion. What qualifies as an insect—and what doesn’t?
“Insects most basically are arthropods, which are invertebrate animals with jointed legs,” said Dr. Anthony Martin, Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University. “Insects are placed under an evolutionarily-related group called hexapoda, so you know they have six legs, and that sets them apart from spiders, scorpions, ticks, and mites, which are arachnids and have eight legs.”
However, Dr. Martin said, insects have other anatomical traits that help set them apart from other arthropods. For example, they have bodies that are divided longitudinally into three parts: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Additionally, their exoskeletons are made of an organic compound called chitin, which is tough and made of polysaccharides. Finally, insects have two antennae as well as compound eyes.
Entomologists—scientists like those at the University of Washington who study insects—are faced with “the curse of plenty.” Dr. Martin said that there are an estimated 900,000 insect species alive today and that they make up 80% of all living species on Earth. Studying their evolution is difficult because the chitin exoskeletons of insects aren’t as hard as rock or bone, so most ancient insect remains broke down organically rather than being preserved.
Dr. Martin said that one way we can study ancient insects is to study their closest relatives, which—surprisingly—aren’t myriapods like millipedes or centipedes.
“What were the ancestors of the first insects? Recent DNA analyses show that the closest living relatives of insects are a group of crustaceans known as remipedes,” Dr. Martin said. “The common ancestry of insects and crustaceans, that was a mildly surprising discovery, as many scientists assumed on the basis of their shared anatomy and habitats that insects were connected evolutionarily with myriapods.”
In terms of how old insects are, Dr. Martin said that the oldest known insect fossil dates back 400 million years, though its mandibles—which resemble those of winged insects—indicate that more primitive wingless insects originated in the Silurian Period. The Silurian Period occurred between 443 million and 416 million years ago.
Entomologists have been steadily learning more about insects for a long time, but with new technology like small backpack-mounted cameras for beetles, the time of discovery in the bug world may just be beginning.
Dr. Anthony Martin contributed to this article. Dr. Martin is Professor of Practice in the Department of Environmental Studies at Emory University, where he has taught courses in geology, paleontology, environmental science, and evolutionary biology since 1990. He earned his BS in Geobiology from St. Joseph’s College (Indiana), MS in Geology from Miami University (Ohio), and PhD in Geology from the University of Georgia.