Planet of the Insects
from the book, "Petrified Lightning"

Petrified Lightning

Planet of the Insects

About 300 million years ago, much of the eastern United States was covered by swamp forests destined to produce this country's enormous coal deposits. That bit of geologic time is known as the age of coal. But plenty of other things were around. These periods (Mississippian and Pennsylvanian) were alive with all kinds of crawling and flying insects. Paleontologists often refer to this time as the age of cockroaches. The quite abundant insects looked very much as they do today, with one minor difference: some of them were about nine inches long. They had their troubles, though, because overhead flew the modern dragonfly's ancestors, which had a wingspan of almost three feet.

Insects have been on earth much longer than indicated by the age of coal. The oldest known insect fossils were found in rocks in central France. These most ancient insect remains, well over 350 million years old, already display well—developed wings for flight. To have evolved such a highly specialized trait as flight, insects must have been around for yet many more millions of years before that.

The diverse ways in which insects evolved and produced many new species is like a fantasy. Presently the earth teems with insects of all size and shapes, but just how great their numbers and how incredibly diversified these small earth creatures are is difficult to conceive.

Scientists have already identified well over a million different species in this century, and about 4,000 new varieties of known species are discovered each year. Entomologists have barely scratched the surface; the final tally is expected to number well over 10 million living species. The meek truly seem to be inheriting the earth. Even more incredible is the intense variation among insect species, ranging from a beetle that thrives in red pepper to another so specialized that it lives only on the tongues of horseflies.