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Jane Francis: Current research projects

A bug's life in Antarctica

Herbivory in Antarctic fossil forests: evolutionary and climatic significance

PhD student: Claire McDonald

Supervisors: Professor Jane Francis, Earth Sciences, School of Earth and Environment, and Dr Steve Compton, Ecology and Evolution, School of Biology, University of Leeds; Dr Alan Haywood, University of Leeds; Professor Alan Ashworth, North Dakota State University, USA; Dr. Luis Felipe Hinojosa, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile., Dr John Smellie, British Antarctic Survey.

Fossil leaves and wood of Cenozoic age from Antarctica contain a rich store of insect trace fossils. These include galls, mines and feeding traces on fossil leaves, plus pellet-filled borings within fossil wood. They show that insects were an important component of the unique forests that once grew in Antarctica. How different were these polar insects from those that feed on related trees today? Was the diversity and the extent of damage similar? What can they tell about the evolution of herbivory and about ancient climates, particularly the critical greenhouse to icehouse transition and Neogene climate history of Antarctica.

The project combines quantitative studies of Antarctic fossil plant-animal interactions  and contemporary insect faunas. A database of all fossil Cenozoic traces is compiled and  being analysed in terms of the diversity and intensity of palaeo-herbivory. Surveys of insects and their feeding damage on selected living relatives of the fossil plants has been undertaken in Chilean Valdivian rainforests and Magellanic tundra, the closest analogues of Antarctic Cenozoic vegetation. These surveys will indicate which fossil insects lived in Antarctica, show how patterns of herbivory have changed over time, and the climates in which the fossil insects lived, thereby suggesting boundary conditions for climate modellers.

Funded by the Earth & Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds.

This is a CASE project with the British Antarctic Survey

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