New collection showcases cutting-edge techniques in insect morphology and systematics
While the field of morphology—the study of the form and function of organisms—is centuries old, the last two decades have brought incredible leaps forward through the emergence of new technologies and genetic research methods. And the impact of these advances has been revolutionary for the scientists working to untangle the vast biodiversity and evolutionary paths of the world of insects.
Two prime examples are high-powered microscopy tools, giving entomologists unprecedented views of previously obscure insect anatomy, and robust genetic sequencing techniques, allowing fine-scale analysis of insect species' relationships that is otherwise impossible with traditional physical observation. The applications of these techniques and more are showcased in a new special research collection, titled "Current Techniques in Morphology," published today in the journal Insect Systematics and Diversity.
Brendon Boudinot, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California-Davis, co-led the development of this collection with István Mikó, collections manager at the University of New Hampshire Department of Biological Sciences. Boudinot says, "The increasing availability of advanced technologies, such as micro-computed tomography and confocal laser scanning microscopy, are allowing researchers to generate models of morphology in three and four dimensions based on physical data. These models not only allow for detailed and quantitative study of anatomical systems and their biomechanical properties, but they also allow end-users to experience the richness of morphology in virtual reality, which is incredible."
The collection gathers six articles illustrating cutting-edge research techniques in insect morphology and phylogenetics. In one, researchers combine scanning electron microscopy, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and micro-computed tomography with traditional dissection techniques to model three types of locking mechanisms in the femur-tibia joint of a diverse sample of insects. In two others, researchers generate three-dimensional models of insect species to serve as "cybertypes," digital versions of holotypes, the specimens upon which formal species descriptions are made.
These 3-D models are included in the research articles online and showcase the role digital publishing also now plays in the exchange of scientific knowledge. In all, across the six articles, more than 25 3-D figures are embedded using the SketchFab platform, which also makes them available for public viewing and to be embedded elsewhere.
Boudinot notes, "Three-dimensional models allow authors to communicate a maximum amount of information, and with those embedded figures, the audience can see a visual representation of the data in a totally new and much more immersive manner than simple 2-D figures. From the perspective of a morphologist, this is fantastic, as trying to understand complex 3-D structures from a series of 2-D projections is not a simple challenge, and is made more difficult by a learning curve. This curve is flattened for morphology when you can literally see a given structure from any angle at any magnification. Plus, cybertypes (3-D scans of type specimens) enable taxonomists to not only discover new characters, but allows users of the work to see in explicit detail features which would otherwise require an expensive museum visit to view."
When Insect Systematics and Diversity was launched by the Entomological Society of America in 2017, it set out to host articles that utilize novel technologies or data types or describe emerging methods of research. The new special collection on current techniques in morphology highlights how Insect Systematics and Diversity has become a premier outlet for integrative research combining multiple subdisciplines within the field.
Articles in the collection include:
- Toward Phylomics in Entomology: Current Systematic and Evolutionary Morphology
- A Systematist's Guide to Estimating Bayesian Phylogenies From Morphological Data
- PARAMO: A Pipeline for Reconstructing Ancestral Anatomies Using Ontologies and Stochastic Mapping
- Jumping and Grasping: Universal Locking Mechanisms in Insect Legs
- Revision of the Highly Specialized Ant Genus Discothyrea (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) in the Afrotropics with X-Ray Microtomography and 3-D Cybertaxonomy
- Ready Species One: Exploring the Use of Augmented Reality to Enhance Systematic Biology with a Revision of Fijian Strumigenys (Hymenoptera: Formicidae)