Webspinners (order Embioptera) are a curious group of insects found mainly in tropical forests. Their biology is among the most poorly studied of any insect group even though webspinners are known to exhibit a range of unique biological phenomena. They are the only insects that spin silk from glands in their front legs, and they do so as both immatures and adults. They exhibit maternal care and often live in groups where they use silk to construct large and sometimes intricate galleries in which they live and rear their young. The types of galleries and behaviors associated with silk spinning vary considerably throughout the group, and nothing is known about the composition of silk proteins and the genetic basis for silk production. Although there are only about 400 species of webspinners known, estimates suggest there may be more than 1500 new species already in collections but not formally described and many more in Nature awaiting discovery. Webspinner classification is in a poor state never having been updated using a modern, phylogenetic basis. A collaborative research and training project between laboratories at three universities will assemble a group of researchers with the expertise to investigate the phylogeny, behavioral ecology and classification of the Embioptera. At Brigham Young University, phylogenetic analyses will be conducted using molecular and morphological data and will form the basis of an improved natural classification of the group. At Santa Clara University, biological aspects of the insects such as colony construction, maternal care and habitat requirements will be examined within a phylogenetic context by tracing these features through the phylogeny. Finally, at the University of California, Riverside, the genetic basis for silk production will be examined by discovering the DNA sequences that code for silk in several species, and the variation in these silk genes will be investigated within the context of webspinner phylogeny. Results will be disseminated in scientific journals and through applications of modern, digital technology including digital image galleries, digital reproductions of literature, digital matrix-based identification keys, etc. Museum holdings of webspinners will be enhanced by curation and new material from fieldwork. This collaborative project represents the first comprehensive investigation of the phylogeny and biology of webspinners ever done. Since embiids occur in often fragile ecosystems, better knowledge of the group will likely have important relevance to conservation of these habitats. Also, this work will foster multidisciplinary collaboration between biologists in disparate fields and facilitate the training of postdoctoral fellows and students in multidisciplinary research. The research will involve undergraduates extensively to give them a firm background in science, including proper research methods and ethics. When the project objectives are met, a historically little-known insect group will be more accessible to everyone through the published results, and a positive long-term impact on the scientific community will occur because of the broad cross-disciplinary training of researchers at several academic levels.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Judith Ellen Skog
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Santa Clara University
Santa Clara
United States
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