It can take years for a researcher to fully understand the diets of a community of herbivorous insects in a tropical rain forest. Now, five Smithsonian scientists are paving a fast track using the DNA found inside the insects' stomachs, potentially turning years of research into months.
This shows six of dozens of rolled leaf beetles collected in Costa Rica for the study. High-quality plant DNA was obtained from the gut contents of these beetles, revealing exactly which Zingiberales plants they had been eating.
Credit: Charles Staines
This method will help scientists understand the ecology and evolution of plant-herbivore interactions more efficiently. Their findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Plants and insects comprise about 50 percent of all known species on Earth, forming the critical foundation of biodiversity in most terrestrial ecosystems. This study focused on 20 species of rolled leaf beetles in Costa Rica and 33 species of flowering plants in the order Zingiberales that the beetles eat and lay eggs on almost exclusively.
Matched against the data gathered from prior direct observation, the information derived from this DNA stomach-content study was nearly identical, yet had taken only fraction of the time and effort.
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