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Research

The group of Dr. Blanke studies the morphological evolution and diversification of insects with analysis workflows from 3D modeling and reconstruction to classical mechanics to morphometrics.

Within this general topic, we focus on the evolution of the insect head. Insects show a remarkable variability of head and mouthpart shapes, but it is unclear how this diversity has evolved, which functional aspects were major selection factors, and how the environment influenced shape variation.

Quantification of the interaction of these aspects will help to understand how insects adapted to environmental changes and how possible future changes may affect them. We place special emphasis on the presumably first major morphological transition from biting-chewing to piercing-sucking mouthpart types and head forms which first arose approximately 350 million years ago. Following this event, within a comparatively short time span, most of the currently recognized orders of insects evolved. This begs the question, then, of which functional processes lead to this explosion in shape variation and how this translated into functional disparity.

To assess this topic, we primarily use micro-computed tomography (µCT) generated using synchrotron accelerators (SRµCT). This data is used to create 3D models of the outer and inner skeletal anatomy, which serve as the basis for our further analyses including geometric morphometrics and the mechanical simulation of food uptake based on experimental data. This in silico data is then used to simulate the impact of shape changes on evolutionary trajectories of mouthpart performance, and to correlate shape and function with ecological and phylogenetic constraints or triggers.