Cornell professor on cover of Science

In the cover article of the May 16 issue of Science, Cornell College biology professor Marty Condon and co-authors turned accepted theories on plant-feeding insect diversity on their head. The study used an examination of fruit fly diversity in Latin America to conclude that typical niche diversity tracking can lead to undercounting of species. DNA analysis resulted in the discovery of multiple new species of fruit flies with overlapping niches.

While some scientists believed that the diversity of plants would predict the diversity of insects that feed on plants, this study demonstrated that herbivorous insect diversity exceeds those expectations, because these flies also specialize on different plant parts. The study further found a surprising number of “hidden” species, species that were physically hidden inside the plants with little to no evidence of their presence, and hidden in the sense that they were nearly indistinguishable from other species without DNA analysis.

Science was founded by funding from Thomas Edison and has the largest circulation of any peer-reviewed general-science journal. Science accepts less than eight percent of all submissions.

Condon has studied these organisms for more than 30 years. Three colleagues joined her to study of the links between host plants and Blepharoneura tropical fruit flies: Agricultural Research Service (ARS) molecular biologist Sonja Scheffer, ARS support scientist Matthew Lewis, and Ithaca College biology professor Susan Swenson.

Students from Cornell College, Ithaca College, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and University of North Carolina, as well as students from Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, participated in the study.