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Insects Research

Insects, Arachnids, and Myriapods

Margaret Thayer's interests in systematics, life histories, evolution and biogeography of world rove beetles focus especially on the more basal lineages and the southern temperate fauna. Her recently-completed PEET grant from the National Science Foundation supported phylogenetic and biogeographic research on several austral groups of Staphylinidae, the training of a post-doc and a Ph.D. student, and four collecting expeditions to austral regions. Her ongoing studies of the worldwide tribe Omaliini aim to provide a phylogenetic background for evolutionary studies of that group’s biogeography and feeding habits; the latter are unusually diverse among rove beetles. She has coauthored generic identification guides for both North America and Mexico, the first such comprehensive works for both areas, and is currently working on similar coverage for Australia. As part of a major collaboration with colleagues around the world (including Newton, see below), she led the Staphyliniformia taxonomic working group (TWiG) of the Beetle Tree of Life Project (BToL) aimed at understanding the large-scale pattern of beetle evolution. This project included a successful 2006 expedition to the western USA to collect specimens of many Staphylinidae and related groups, preserved so their DNA could be extracted and sequenced for use in phylogenetic analyses along with morphological characters. She has recently begun some work with Chinese colleagues on Mesozoic beetle fossils that promise to fill gaps in the understanding of evolution of rove beetles and related groups.

Petra Sierwald's research focuses mainly on spiders and millipedes, investigating a wide range of evolutionary, systematic (higher classification), alpha-taxonomic, biogeographic, and faunistic questions. The evolution of complex male and female genitalia, and the evolution of sexual size dimorphism in both spiders (wolf spiders and relatives) and millipedes (Rhinocricidae, Paradoxosomatidae) are ongoing research activities. Systematic and biogeographic research focuses on the spider family Pisauridae (nursery web spiders) and includes alpha-taxonomic work. As Co-PI of the current AToL Spider Phylogeny grant, morphological work covers several spider families related to Pisauridae, such as the wolf and lynx spiders, the Trechaleidae and Senoculidae. Recent alpha-taxonomic work as part of her past and current PEET grants centers on the millipede families Pyrgodesmidae, Paradoxosomatidae, Sphaeriodesmidae, Sphaerotheriidae and Rhinocricidae. Ongoing research also focuses on higher classification of millipedes, with recently published and forthcoming new phylogenetic analyses at the order and suborder level (orders Siphoniulida, Spirobolida and the Pentazonia). Most of the current work is conducted in collaboration with grant Co-PIs, grant-funded students and post-doctoral fellows. Recent contributions to faunistic research include development of a database and analysis of the spider fauna of 5 Great Lake States (Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio). This activity is ongoing; to date species-lists for 10 US states have been databased, with more forthcoming. A significant amount of effort is currently expended on the development of scientific infrastructure: a global millipede species catalog (in a relational database) will be completed by 2010 and served on-line; type catalogs of Field Museum’s arachnid and myriapod collections are either published or forthcoming; and the PEET grant supported the work on the first global millipede collection catalog (published and available on-line in December 2006).

Corrie Moreau’s research interest is in the evolutionary history of the ants (Formicidae). Moreau is interested in the origin and evolution of species, and in particular, how different factors may influence patterns of diversification. More specifically she is interested in how we can use molecular methods and ant taxa to address these questions. Teasing apart the factors that have lead to the prolific diversity of the ants is an active line of research in her lab. From the rise of the flowering plants, associations ants have with other insects and plants, to their microbial community are all potential underlying factors that may have facilitated their ecological dominance in almost all terrestrial ecosystems. Moreau is currently pursuing research focusing on understanding biogeographic patterns and historical processes that have shaped distributions of ants in Australia and between the Nearctic and Neotropics.

Alfred Newton's research focuses on the systematics and evolution of the beetle superfamily Staphylinoidea. Recent contributions include reviews of the classification and phylogeny of the beetle families Leiodidae and Agyrtidae, collaborative phylogenetic studies that resulted in the merging of two smaller staphylinoid beetle families (Pselaphidae and Scydmaenidae) with Staphylinidae making this the largest family of living organisms (with over 57,500 known species), and further collaborations to produce generic identification guides to the Staphylinidae of North America and Mexico, an online species identification guide to large staphylinids (Staphylinina) of northeastern North America, and checklists of Colombian and Iranian Staphylinidae. Newton and Margaret Thayer also collaborate on a long-term study of the systematics and biogeography of the poorly-known fauna of these beetles in the southern hemisphere; their field work in Australia, New Zealand, Chile and South Africa has produced more than a million adults and larvae, many of which represent unnamed species and genera. He is also one of several collaborators in the Staphyliniformia taxonomic working group (TWiG) of the Beetle Tree of Life Project (BToL), and is developing an online taxonomic database of all 71,800+ species of Staphyliniformia known worldwide, part of which is already available, along with all names for family-group (nearly 500) and genus-group (5780+) taxa of Staphyliniformia and all associated bibliographic references (36,000+).

Other researchers in the Division of Insects are:

  • Post-doc Stefanie Kautz and Ph.D. student Benjamin Rubin: ants
  • Ph.D. student Dave Clarke and Associate John Wagner: staphylinid beetles
  • Ph.D. student Michael Jorgensen: millipedes