Phylogenetic distribution of extant richness suggests metamorphosis is a key innovation driving diversification in insects

James Lewis Rainford, Michael Hofreiter, David Blair Nicholson, Peter John Mayhew

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Insects and their six-legged relatives (Hexapoda) comprise more than half of all described species and dominate terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. Understanding the macroevolutionary processes generating this richness requires a historical perspective, but the fossil record of hexapods is patchy and incomplete. Dated molecular phylogenies provide an alternative perspective on divergence times and have been combined with birth-death models to infer patterns of diversification across a range of taxonomic groups. Here we generate a dated phylogeny of hexapod families, based on previously published sequence data and literature derived constraints, in order to identify the broad pattern of macroevolutionary changes responsible for the composition of the extant hexapod fauna. The most prominent increase in diversification identified is associated with the origin of complete metamorphosis, confirming this as a key innovation in promoting insect diversity. Subsequent reductions are recovered for several groups previously identified as having a higher fossil diversity during the Mesozoic. In addition, a number of recently derived taxa are found to have radiated following the development of flowering plant (angiosperm) floras during the mid-Cretaceous. These results reveal that the composition of the modern hexapod fauna is a product of a key developmental innovation, combined with multiple and varied evolutionary responses to environmental changes from the mid Cretaceous floral transition onward.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere109085
Number of pages7
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2014

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© The Authors 2014. This content is made available by the publisher under a Creative Commons CC BY Licence


  • evolution
  • insects

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