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BYU professors receive $2.3 million grant to study the evolutionary history of the oldest insect to fly on Earth

Before dinosaurs roamed the planet, one of the first animals to fly, soared through the air with a wingspan of more than two feet. Today, these aerial ambush predators maintain speeds from 18 to 30 miles an hour on wings that span only two to five inches. Their speed accompanied by exceptional agility and a nearly 360-degree field of vision facilitates the dragonfly’s 95 percent hunting accuracy.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has granted $2.3 million to a team of researchers, led by BYU College of Life Sciences faculty Seth Bybee and Jamie Jensen to map the genealogy and study the evolutionary histories of virtually all odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) on the planet. The grant will also facilitate the creation of the most complete database for an entire order of insect and make it available to both researchers and the public in an effort to increase awareness of diversity and appreciation for natural history collections.

“We are thrilled for the opportunities this grant provides as invertebrates rarely get this depth or level of attention,” Bybee said. “As we create the ‘tree of life’ for dragonflies and damselflies, we hope that we can test evolutionary scenarios of speciation in an invertebrate group at a level that hasn’t been done before.”

The research team will build a dragonfly tree of life out of DNA data from living species and utilize morphological data to tell where fossils fit on the phylogenetic tree. They will look at where dragonflies originated along with the evolution of their flight, color, and habitat.

“We want to know whether they live in streams, lakes, or ponds; what kind of a flier they are—whether a ‘percher’ or a ‘flier’; and how their color evolved as possibly the first multi-colored insect. We want to take these traits and figure out how each one has contributed to the diversity of dragonflies individually and collectively.”

As one of the first flyers, dragonflies are central to understanding the evolution of flight. They are remarkable aerial ambush predators serving a critical ecological role in communities as they prey on other insects such as mosquitoes. Odonates are also one of a few animal groups that spend part of their life in freshwater and another part on land. Intimately connected with freshwater ecosystems—they live two years underwater as aquatic predator nymphs—they are key indicators of healthy freshwater systems.

“We hope our efforts will provide tools for dragonflies and damselflies to become the standard as global bioindicators of endangered freshwater habitats amid global change and habitat loss,” Bybee said.

After gathering genetic information for nearly all 6,000 dragonfly species, the research team will make a comprehensive online database that will add value to researchers as well as students.

“Through our previous research, we found students lacked understanding of the critical importance of natural history collections,” Jensen said. “We will use the research findings of this grant to create engaging and novel modules to be incorporated into high school and undergraduate classrooms to educated students on the importance of maintaining natural history collections for the purpose of preserving our natural world for generations to come.”

The BYU research team is also consulting with BYU plant and wildlife professor Paul Frandsen and working with a group of researchers from four institutions including Rob Guralnick from the University of Florida, John Abbott from the University Alabama, Jessica Ware with the American Museum of Natural History, and Vincent Kalkman from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.