The 366 daily episodes in 2014 were chronological snapshots of earth history, beginning with the Precambrian in January and on to the Cenozoic in December. You can find them all in the index in the right sidebar. In 2015, the daily episodes for each month were assembled into monthly packages, and a few new episodes were posted. Now, the blog/podcast is on an occasional schedule with diverse topics, and the Facebook Page showcases photos on Mineral Monday and Fossil Friday. Thanks for your interest!

Monday, July 14, 2014

July 14. Insects



Based on the abundance of insects in the fossil record and analogies with modern settings, Pennsylvanian coal swamps teemed with insects and spiders. Many were delicately preserved in concretions in fine-grained sediments, like those at Mazon Creek we mentioned a few days ago. Even details such as wings and their veins are often preserved. The warm, moist climate in at least the tropical and sub-tropical Pennsylvanian world might have stimulated the evolution of insects, or it might have been more a co-evolution with the plants that dominated those swamps.  

Did the presence of insects as food promote the development of land life? Or did the pressure from evolving land predators stimulate the diversification of insects? Most likely, it was a combination of both and more. There is actually quite a gap in the fossil record between the first insects in the Devonian and the proliferation of insects in the Pennsylvanian, so their evolutionary history is not all that well known. Insects had evolved the ability to fly by Pennsylvanian time, but the details of that evolution are obscure.

Meganeura - Dragonfly photo by Hcrepin via Wikipedia under GDFL.

Pennsylvanian swamps had cockroaches four inches long, and the air buzzed with relatives of dragonflies with wingspreads of 25 inches or more. Gerarus was a bug with a wingspan of 10 centimeters – 4 inches – and a body covered with spikes.

It’s not certain why Pennsylvanian insects grew so large. A common idea is that there was more oxygen in the Pennsylvanian atmosphere, giving both more energy for growth and more lift to winged insects. There was more oxygen – possibly as much as 35% vs. today’s 21%, probably largely because of all the plants taking up carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. But one problem with that is that gigantic insects survived and even became larger into the Permian, when oxygen levels were considerably lower than in the Pennsylvanian. It might have been that large insects were better able to manage oxygen usage than small ones.  It has also been suggested that the gigantism was a result of evolutionary pressure, an arms race, among competitors for food resources.

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Florence Bascomb was born July 14, 1862, in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She was educated at the University of Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins, where she earned her PhD in geology in 1893 – the second American woman to do so. She was the first woman hired as a professional by the U.S. Geological Survey, and she also established the geology department at Bryn Mawr College. Her research focused on the igneous and metamorphic rocks of the mid-Atlantic states, including both seminal field work and state-of-the-art petrographic analysis.

Today is also Woody Guthrie’s birthday.
—Richard I. Gibson

Links:
Insect fossils in Kansas 
Gerarus
Oxygen and giant insects 
Oxygen and giant insects – another view 

Dragonfly photo by Hcrepin via Wikipedia under GDFL.

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