A research, based on new fossil records, has suggested that plant-eating insects might increase their assaults on the foliage because of warming temperatures round the globe.
The team, who carried out the research, was from Penn State, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Wesleyan University.
According to the research, more than 55 million years ago, the Earth experienced a rapid jump in global carbon dioxide levels that raised temperatures across the planet.
Now, researchers studying plants from that time have found that the rising temperatures may have boosted the foraging of insects. As modern temperatures continue to rise, the researchers believe the planet could see increasing crop damage and forest devastation.
"Our study convincingly shows that there is a link between temperature and insect feeding on leaves," said lead author Ellen Currano of Pennsylvania State University and the Smithsonian Institution.
"When temperature increases, the diversity of insect feeding damage on plant species also increases," she added.
Currano's team collected the study fossils from the badlands of Wyoming, gathering more than 5,000 fossil leaves from five sites representing time zones before, during and after the roughly 100,000 year temperature spike called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).
The researchers found that the PETM plants were noticeably more damaged than fossil plants before and after that period.
The PETM plants, many of which are legumes - the family that now includes beans and peas - show damage with greater frequency, greater variety and a more destructive character than plants from the surrounding geologic time periods.
"This study shows that insects responded rapidly to a major change in climate during the PETM," said Enriqueta Barrera, program director in NSF's Division of Earth Sciences.
Because food webs that involve plant-eating insects affect as much as three quarters of organisms on Earth, the researchers believe that the current increase in temperature could have a profound impact on present ecosystems, and potentially to crops, if the pattern holds true in modern times.
"This study represents a highly integrative approach, using well-studied systems, to model ecological dynamics during upcoming climate shifts," said William Hahn, a program director in NSF's Division of Graduate Education.
"The truly relevant description of past climate-change effects on plant-insect interactions, specifically the probability of increased insect damage to plants with rising temperatures, is a forward-looking approach that will help us prepare for the effects of future global warming," he added.