‘Planet of the Bugs’ reveals the secrets to insects’ success

An entomologist argues that the six-legged creatures rule the world

book cover Planet of the BugsPlanet of the Bugs
Scott Richard Shaw
Univ. of Chicago, $27.50 

The 165-million-year-long era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth shouldn’t be called the Age of Reptiles. Nor should the era that followed, which extends to the present, be christened the Age of Mammals. Just ask an insect guy.

In Planet of the Bugs, Shaw, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, makes a good case that Earth has long been dominated by insects. The six-legged creatures have adapted to almost every ecological niche imaginable, from the icy heights of the Himalayas to the deserts of Death Valley to the scalding springs of Yellowstone National Park. Within a couple broad ecosystems, the biomass of insects outweighs that of all vertebrates combined, including humans.

So far, almost 1 million insect species have been identified — Shaw alone has discovered almost 200 — and perhaps tens of millions more await the honor. Shaw highlights some of the keys to insect diversity, including tiny size, which lets insects take advantage of even exceedingly small ecological niches. Prolific reproduction and short life spans both enable rapid evolution.

In a chapter-by-chapter march through time, Shaw engagingly chronicles the evolutionary innovations that have rendered insects so successful for the last 400 million years or so. One triumph was the ability to fly; insects were the only critters to do so for more than 150 million years. Another was the evolution of multistage life cycles, which limited competition for resources between adults and their offspring. Yet another was insects’ coevolution with flowering plants, which explosively fueled biodiversity for at least 120 million years.

Drawing from field studies and the fossil record, Planet of the Bugs is a fascinating look at the rise and proliferation of creatures that shape ecosystems worldwide.

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