“No one has been successful growing dragonflies under controlled laboratory conditions before, at least to my knowledge,” said paleobiologist John VandenBrooks of Arizona State University, leader of the work. “This has allowed us to ask the question, ‘how have oxygen levels through time influenced the evolution of insects?’”
During the Paleozoic era, around 300 million years ago, huge dragonflies zipped around with wingspans stretching more than two and a half feet, dwarfing modern relatives. Back then, however, the planet’s atmosphere had roughly 50 percent more oxygen than today.
To explore the effects of ancient oxygen levels, VandenBrooks’ team raised 11 other “living fossils,” including beetles and cockroaches, in three habitats with different oxygen concentrations — one at the late Paleozoic’s 31 percent oxygen level, another at today’s 21 percent level and the third at 12 percent from 240 million years ago (Earth’s lowest oxygen level since complex life exploded onto the scene half a billion years ago).
They found that dragonflies and beetles grew faster, as well as bigger, in a high-oxygen environment, while cockroaches grew slower and remained the same size. All but two bug species grew smaller than normal at low concentrations of oxygen.
Measurements of insect breathing-tube volume from the experiment could be correlated with that of insects trapped in amber, VandenBrooks said, providing a solid tool to determine oxygen levels in poorly understood eras.