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UConn’s invertebrate collection welcomes the smallest of insects

Campus Correspondent

Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 23:12

A Lilliputocoris specimen is about as large as a single letter in nine-point font. However, Dr. Jane O’Donnell, manager of the UConn invertebrate collection, and her recent research on the genus demonstrate that, in the world of biological classification, size does not matter.

Lilliputocoris is a genus of almost microscopic insects that live in jungle floor litter in places like Madagascar and Argentina. Very little is known about the organism’s niche behaviors in ecology, and only about 100 specimens are known to occur in the world.

“The way I think about it we share these organisms with planet earth, and we share a unique evolutionary history with them,” O’Donnell said. “That’s justification enough for their continued existence.”

O’Donnell’s research in that several years has had her collaborate with other professionals from the California Academy of Sciences, as well as collaborators in the Czech Republic and Madagascar.

The Lilliputocoris specimens preserved in UConn’s biology collection were brought from Madagascar, and even with the distance traveled by such small and delicate specimens they were kept in pristine condition.

“It’s a testament to the para-taxonomists of Madagascar,” O’Donnell said.

All the specimens measure less than two millimeters and require an electron microscope in order to be seen clearly. To the naked eye, the specimens seem to be little more than brown specks on tabs of paper, but upon closer inspection these brown specks are incredibly unique from each other. O’Donnell’s job is to discover the differences between these specimens, and attempt to classify them as different species of the genus.

Brian Fisher, from the California Academy of Sciences, spoke in a New York Times blog post about arthropods of Madagascar such as Lilliputocoris, “If we were looking for life on other planets, and we found something like this, it would be an enormous discovery, but we are still finding new life forms on our planet and that’s still amazing.”

The Lilliputocoris genus, named after the miniscule Lilliputians of “Gulliver’s Travels,” was first recognized and named by O’Donnell’s major advisor James Slater, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology. The first specimen O’Donnell classified herself, Paradema Slateri, is named after him.

The Lilliputocoris research has been going on for several years and is still in its initial stages. “It’ll continue until it’s reached a stage till its publishable,” O’Donnell said.

Other than her research on the Lilliputocoris specimens, O’Donnell manages the UConn invertebrate collection which is part of the larger UConn Biodiversity Research Collection. Collections such as these are often expensive to maintain at other schools, but having this collection makes research like O’Donnell’s more feasible.

“It provides tangible examples of the plants and animals that we share our planet with. And it’s a record of life on planet earth that I think is under appreciated by people of this modern age,” O’Donnell said.

 

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