Head capsule fragment belonging to a millipede preserved in Rhynie chert
The earliest terrestrial arthropods
The emergence of terrestrial ecosystems represented one of the most important transitions in the history of life on Earth. Of the more than 30 animal phyla, only four have succeeded in truly conquering land and today account for the majority of terrestrial biodiversity - annelids, molluscs, vertebrates, and arthropods. Of these, the arthropods, are by far the most diverse, yet the origins of their success of land are poorly understood. This is in part due to the extreme scarcity of terrestrial deposits from the Silurian and Devonian.
To understand the palaeobiology of the earliest terrestrial arthropods and the timing of the arthropod conquest of land, I am currently studying the Rhynie chert and Ludford Lane Lagerstätten, two exceptional deposits dating back to the early Devonian (407 million years ago) and Late Silurian (419 million years ago), respectively. The material from Rhynie in Scotland and Ludford in Shropshire represents the remains of the earliest fossilised ecosystems, sometimes preserved with exceptional life-like fidelity.
Tenomerga rohdendorfi (Cupedidae) in Eocene Bitterfeld amber
Amber, or fossilised tree resin, provides an exceptional medium for the preservation of arthropod fossils. I work mainly on Cretaceous amber from northern Myanmar (approximately 100 million years old) and on Eocene Baltic amber (~34-44 million years ago). I am moreover interested in smaller amber deposits from central and eastern Europe.)
In terms of the number of species, beetles account for around a quarter of all known animal life; they are one of the most ubiquitous and dominant forces in virtually all terrestrial and limnic ecosystems. While over 386,000 species have been described to date, it is estimated that around 1.2 million species still await to be discovered. Describing and cataloguing this immensely biodiverse group represents the first step for conservation projects and for further study. But where to start? Where may be many undescribed beetles?
The sum of described beetles represents a non-random sample of their total diversity. Studies across insect groups have established that smaller species tend to always be described later than their larger counterparts and are therefore largely overlooked in biodiversity studies. The same is true for beetles. I use the term 'microcoleoptera' to refer to little-studied polyphagan beetle families which share a couple of characteristic attributes: a very small body size (typically less than 2mm), roughly spherical shape, and mycophagous habits. My long-term goals are to better understand the evolution of these small and neglected beetle families. Currently, I am preparing for a revision of Alexiidae of the world.