Stoneflies evolve to lose their wings. (University of Otago)
One study has shown that insects are developing rapidly in New Zealand in response to deforestation.
Researchers at the University of Otago found that previously winged insects have evolved into flightless.
Surprisingly, the changes take place over hundreds of years – not millennia.
The researchers believe that the insects lose their wings because they are more exposed to the wind after losing protection from the trees.
The research compared insect populations around the alpine “tree line” in both forested and cleared areas and found that recent forest loss has increased the spread of flightless insects that were previously confined to alpine grassland ecosystems.
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PhD student Brodie Foster said, “Within a short span of just a few hundred years, the study found that many previously winged populations became flightless.”
The Otago team focused on the endemic Zelandoperla stonefly species, which often has flightless populations in mountainous areas but typically flightless populations in lower forest areas.
The researchers also found wingless populations at much lower elevations in recently deforested areas.
Genetic analysis showed little difference between winged and flightless populations in these deforested areas, which confirms that the loss of flight has developed very quickly.
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The study co-author, Dr. Graham McCulloch, who led the genetic analysis, said native insect species are becoming increasingly vulnerable to exposure due to the loss of forest cover and have developed flight cancellation as a strategy to cope with these windy conditions.
Human expansion has dramatically shifted the balance of many ecosystems around the world.
The story goes on
How wild populations continue to adapt and develop to sudden changes such as deforestation remains largely unknown.
Traditionally, evolutionary biologists think of changes that span many millennia, while this study found that significant changes occur over a period of centuries.
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Dr. McCulloch points out, however, that while the study demonstrated the ability of these populations to adapt quickly to environmental changes, it also highlighted the increased vulnerability of these insects to local extinction as they become more isolated.
Dr. McCulloch said, “While most of our flying insect species appear relatively safe, isolated flightless populations are potentially more vulnerable, as are our native birds.”
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