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Insects and sex: 'Educational help' from the museum

So-called "holometabolous" insects will be in the focus of their attention. All insects that undergo complete metamorphosis from larva to pupa belong to this group of insects. "With more than 800,000 described species these insects are the 'successful ones' in evolution," underlines project manager Beutel.

Besides many morphological similarities and agreements among the representatives of one order, it can be noticed that the male genital apparatus of holometabolous insects is outstandingly multiform. "Often it serves as the only distinguishing feature between different species," Prof. Beutel makes clear. The entomologist and his team from the Institute of Systematic Zoology and Evolutionary Biology to which the Phyletic Museum belongs as well ask the question why there is such a great variety in male genitals and which meaning this has for the evolution of insects.

The project of the insect researchers is funded by the VolkswagenStiftung with EUR 150,000. As the only zoological project it has asserted itself against approx. 120 competitors and does now belong to the 11 projects throughout Germany that are funded within the VolkswagenStiftung's initiative Research in Museums". It is the goal of the initiative to strengthen smaller and medium-sized museums as research institutions, and to link them with universities and other scientific organizations. "With regard to content we will mainly deal with anatomical images of the genitals of insects," Dr. Frank Hnefeld explains the work to come. The scientists at the University's Phyletic Museum are using a special imaging system called micro-computed tomography (MicroCT). It allows high-resolution morphological images. "We do not only want to study the genitals in detail but also get images of the act of mating itself," says Dr. Hnefeld. The zoologists are hoping for insight into how far the so-called key-lock principle" is realized among different insect orders. The exact fitting of male and female sexual organs within one species so that fertilization by another species can be prevented has for a long time served as the explanation for the extraordinary variability of the copulation organs," says Prof. Beutel. "Current works, however, indicate that this is rather the result of sexual selection a kind of evolutive arms race between male and female sexual organs, so to speak."

At the end of the two-year term the research project's results will be shown in a scientific workshop, and in a special exhibition for the public in the Phyletic Museum. It is planned to create larger-than-life models of the insects from the MicroCT images. The working title of the exhibition has been fixed already: "What you've always wanted to know about sex and insects." "We therefore give people 'education' literally", Prof. Beutel says with a wink. Thanks to the bees.


Contact: Prof. Dr. Rolf Beutel
Friedrich-Schiller-Universitt Jena

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