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Book Review Of: Evolution Of The Insects

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a book review of:

Evolution of the Insects by David Grimaldi and Michael S. Engel. Cambridge University Press. 2005. 755 pages. Hardcover retail $120 USD.

When I was in the sixth grade in the 1970's, each of us had to build an insect collection for science class. We learned about biological classification before we started because each collection had to have at least nine different taxonomic orders represented. At the time I had an up-to-date insect identification guide to help me.

What I didn't know then was that a basic reevaluation of the taxonomy of insects and all other organisms was in progress. It involved a more detailed study of anatomical characters and incorporated information from ongoing genetic and molecular research. This reevaluation would not completely alter the tree of life but many twigs would be rearranged onto different branches with even some branches repositioned as scientists recognized more precise indicators of ancestry.

"Evolution of the Insects" is a volume that attempts to address every major aspect of the evolutionary history of insects. It's an especially ambitious goal when you consider that there are more species of insects (over 925, 000) than there are species of all other organisms put together (other invertebrates, vertebrates, plants, fungi, and all microorganisms). And that's just the modern species. Insects have risen or dwindled in diversity at different times in the geologic past just like any other class of organisms. Some have even died out across their long history which extends perhaps 400 million years

The authors are both paleontologists who have traveled around the world collecting modern and fossil insects. Dr. David Grimaldi is Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor at three universities. Dr. Michael S. Engel holds two positions at the University of Kansas: Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Curator in Charge in the Division of Entomology at the Natural History Museum. He is also a Research Associate at the American Museum of Natural History.

Chapter 1 introduces insect diversity and evolution. The topics range from the basic concept of the species and total insect species estimates to biological classification, history of research, and paleontology.

Chapter 2 looks at the types of fossil insect preservation (compressions, impressions, amber inclusions, etc.) and the major fossil insect deposits of the world.

Chapter 3 covers the arthropods, their relationship to other phyla, their diversity, and the origin of insects.

Chapter 4 breaks down the anatomy of insects, the interrelationships of insect groups, and the history of entomological research.

Chapters 5 through 13 review the known extinct and modern insect orders as they are now understood.

Chapter 14 focuses on the evolution of the modern groups of insects and how it is linked to the rise, development, and spread of flowering plants (and other organisms) during the Cretaceous and across the Cenozoic. The reader also learns how insects were affected by the K/T extinction event and the break-up of the continents across the Cretaceous and Cenozoic.

The text is technical but the first three chapters prepare the layman for that. "Technical" can mean difficult to read for the average reader but it also means detailed - the kind of detail some collectors are hoping for but cannot get in a mainstream fossil guide.

This book taught me how insect interrelationships have been reinterpreted since I was in elementary school. For instance, mantises, once included within the Orthoptera with the grasshoppers and crickets, are now classified in their own order, the Mantodea. A mantis might look like a predatory grasshopper but it does not share the same modifications of anatomical characters that indicate a close relationship to grasshoppers. The particular complexity of the male reproductive organs of roaches, mantises, and termites unite them as relatives (orders within the superorder Dictyoptera) and separate them from other insect groups.

Whether the reader approaches this book as something to be absorbed in its entirety (the entomologist seeking to expand perspective) or in sections (the serious hobbyist wanting to increase expertise on particular groups), I think everyone should read Chapter 14. It's the condensed history of modern insects starting in the Cretaceous, when perhaps half of today's families appeared, and it shows them against the background of a changing world. The reader sees the birth and development of complex plant-insect (as well as bird-insect and mammal-insect) relationships that we see in action today. This chapter alone would be an excellent reference for someone looking for a broader discussion of insect ecology.

The preface points out that there are two other similar references available (the hexapod section of the "Treatise of Invertebrate Paleontology" by Carpenter, 1992; "History of Insects" by Rasnitsyn and Quicke, 2002). However, they are less-amateur friendly and focus only on fossil insects. Also, "History of Insects" sells for a few hundred dollars. Since "Evolution of the Insects" shows modern and fossil insects of the same order side-by-side, the reader gets the "big picture" in one book .

This book provides a rich mix of detailed drawings and excellent close-up photos of fossil and modern specimens (including SEM shots of tiny forms and anatomical characters) along with numerous charts and tables. The photos are especially abundant in the chapters that discuss the orders, and in case anyone is wondering, there are a lot of nice shots of great amber specimens from several localities around the world.

I would recommend this book to entomology students and serious fossil insect collectors. Even if the reader is just thinking of getting serious, I would suggest acquiring this book because it is a reference to grow into. The general fossil collector building a personal library of comprehensive volumes on various groups of organisms should invest in a copy as well. It's expensive but well worth the price.


Edited by siteseer
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Thanks, Jess!

Chapter 14 sounds to be worth the cost of the book all by itself! Paleoecology simply cannot be understood outside the context of insects.

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  • 5 months later...

if it's by David Grimaldi then it must be good, he was the guy (him and his wife) who attemped to put together what the domincan republic's rainforest would have looked like 30 million years ago, based on insects and plants preserved in the amber. they even managed to conclude the presence of fig trees because of a fig wasp with nematode worms attached to it, in the amber.

Edited by NZ_Fossil_Collecta
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  • 2 months later...

I love this book. I also have Rasnitsyn's but it is much more technical in nature. It cost me $500. The Grimaldi book was only just over $100.

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