Copyright All rights reserved by Steve Balcombe

Studying evolution through the specialisations of burying beetles

Swastika Issar, PhD student, writes:

I’ve always been fascinated by how new species can emerge from the way populations adapt to their local environments. For my PhD, I worked on the burying beetles. These incredible insects turn the carcass of a small vertebrate, such as a bird or a mammal, into an edible nest for their larvae.

Swastika Issar

I was interested in studying how local adaptations and specialisations to particular resources (e.g. food) evolved. During my field experiments in woodlands around Cambridgeshire, I found that beetles preferred different carcasses depending on the time of year and the location I was testing.

Swastika in the field

This made me curious about whether differences in the use of resources between populations of beetles could eventually prevent these populations from being able to breed with each other– through a mechanism called reproductive isolation.

To test this, I experimentally evolved populations on different types of carcasses over multiple generations. I found that beetles quickly showed a preference for the type of carrion they developed upon as larvae, indicating the potential for reproductive isolation to occur via resource specialisation.

These findings had previously not been demonstrated in the burying beetle system, and led to a lot of interesting questions about the mechanisms behind becoming specialised to a particular resource.

“Specilisation” = (Biology) to cause animals and plants (organisms) to develop in a way most suited to a particular environment or way of life

Find out more about research into burying beetles from the Kilner Group on their website

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