Why do creatures look like and live the way they do? Which evolutionary forces have shaped the world we see today? Our researchers are trying to understand the factors that determine the optimal body size of insects: somewhat surprisingly, such a simple question still lacks a comprehensive explanation. To this end, our researchers conduct field experiments to study the effect of entomopathogenic fungi, measure the growth rate of larvae in relation to their body size, and study the links between lepidopteran wing colouration patterns and fitness. Combining the ecological experimental research with advances in our understanding of insect phylogeny allows us to successfully apply the phylogenetic comparative methods.
Scientific systematics is nowadays predominantly phylogenetical: species are classified according to their relatedness. Modern systematics therefore relies on the reconstruction of the phylogenetic three - that is, our understanding of the evolutionary trajectories in the distant past. Complex computer programmes are used to find the most likely evolutionary tree, using both morphological and molecular traits - the DNA sequences of single genes.
Every nation should know their closest neighbours - the species that live alongside us. Keeping track of the distribution of insect species provides valuable input for planning nature conservation. Changes in the species distribution also allow us to analyse the effect of climate change on biota. Notably, Erki Õunap, a member of our research group recently discovered a new species of macrolepidoptera: Nola estonica Õunap. A new macrolepidoptera species has not been discovered from Northern Europe since the 20th century.
Insects are considered a promising and sustainable source of food and feed due to their high nutrient content and low emissions of greenhouse gases. However, because of insufficient research it is not yet possible to thoroughly evaluate the costs and benefits of insect farming for food and feed. We address this knowledge gap with studies on the black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) in an already established and functional insect farm in Tartu. The project is partially financed by a private company.