Biodiversity and Conservation

, Volume 17, Issue 9, pp 2055–2078 | Cite as

Fossil insects and ecosystem dynamics in wetlands: implications for biodiversity and conservation

  • Nicki J. Whitehouse
  • Peter G. Langdon
  • Richard Bustin
  • Sarah Galsworthy
Original Paper


We review the uses of fossil insects, particularly Coleoptera (beetles) and Chironomidae (non-biting midges) from ancient deposits to inform the study of wetland ecosystems and their ecological and restoration processes. In particular, we focus on two contrasting ecosystems, drawing upon research undertaken by us on British raised mire peats and shallow lake systems, one an essentially terrestrial ecosystem, the other aquatic, but in which wetland insects play an important and integral part. The study of raised mire peats suggests that faunal stability is a characteristic of these wetland systems, over what appear to be extensive periods of time (up to several millennia), whilst studies of shallow lake ecosystems over recent timescales indicates that faunal instability appears to be more common, usually driven by increasing eutrophication. Drawing upon a series of fossil Coleoptera records spanning several thousand years from Hatfield Moors, south Yorkshire, we reconstruct in some detail the mire’s ontogeny and fluctuations in site hydrology and vegetation cover, illustrating the intimate association between substrate, topography and peat development. A comparison between fossil and modern beetle populations indicates that the faunal characteristics of this mire and its adjacent neighbour, Thorne Moors, become established during the early phases of peat development, including its rare endemics, and that the faunal biodiversity on the sites today is dictated by complex site histories. The over-riding characteristic of these faunas is of stability over several thousand years, which has important implications for the restoration of degraded sites, especially those where refugial areas are limited. In contrast, analyses of fossil Chironomidae from shallow lakes allow researchers to track changes in limnological status and while attempts have been made to reconstruct changes in nutrient levels quantitatively, the chironomids respond indirectly to such changes, typically mediated through complex ecosystem dynamics such as changes in fish and/or macrophyte communities. These changes are illustrated via historic chironomid stratigraphies and diversity indices from a range of shallow lakes located across Britain: Slapton Ley, Frensham Great Pond, Fleet Pond, Kyre Pool and Barnes Loch. These sites have shown varying degrees of eutrophication over recent timescales which tends to be associated with a decline in chironomid diversity. While complex functional processes exist within these ecosystems, our evidence suggests that one of the key drivers in the loss of shallow lake chironomid diversity appears to be the loss of aquatic macrophytes. Overall, while chironomids do show a clear response to altered nutrient regimes, multi-proxy reconstructions are recommended for a clear interpretation of past change. We conclude that if we are to have a better understanding of biota at the ecosystem level we need to know more of the complex interactions between different insect groups as well as with other animal and plant communities. A palaeoecological approach is thus crucial in order to assess the role of insect groups in ecosystem processes, both in the recent past and over long time scales, and is essential for wetland managers and conservation organisations involved in long term management and restoration of wetland systems


Fossil insects Coleoptera Chironomidae Ecosystem processes Wetland dynamics Mire ontogeny Shallow lakes Palaeolimnology Restoration 



Fossil beetle analyses in the Humberhead Levels was conducted as part of a PhD funded by the Hossein Farmy Fund (University of Sheffield), under the supervision of Professors Paul Buckland and Kevin Edwards. The following organisations provided funding and/or assistance: Hossein Farmy Foundation (University of Sheffield), NERC Radiocarbon Steering Committee (Allocation 659/0896); Kelt UK; European Science Foundation (ESF) (Network on Fossil Insects), the Royal Society. Access to insect reference collections were provided by Doncaster Museum; Manchester Museum; The British Museum (Natural History); Oxford University Museum. PL would like to thank NERC (Grant No. NER/M/S/2002/00110) that supported much of the chironomid research along with Ian Foster who provided many of the samples. Shane Farrelly is thanked for preparing some of the chironomid samples and Helen Bennion for providing the core and some diatom data from Frensham Pond. All landowners are thanked for providing access to the sites and special thanks go to the Fleet Pond Society for providing data. We would like to thank Carl Sayer, University College London for providing material for analysis to us and encouraging the ongoing invertebrate work within shallow lake systems. Coleoptera shallow lake work in woodland ponds has been supported by funding by NERC (Grant No. NE/D007577/1 to Whitehouse and Smith). Libby Mulqueeny, Queen’s University Belfast, is thanked for cartographic assistance. We thank constructive comments from two anonymous referees.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicki J. Whitehouse
    • 1
  • Peter G. Langdon
    • 2
  • Richard Bustin
    • 3
  • Sarah Galsworthy
    • 3
  1. 1.Palaeoecology Centre, School of Geography, Archaeology and PalaeoecologyQueen’s University BelfastBelfastUK
  2. 2.School of GeographyUniversity of SouthamptonSouthamptonUK
  3. 3.Department of Geography, School of Geography, Archaeology and Earth ResourcesUniversity of ExeterExeterUK

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