RIP Niels Peder Kristensen (1943-2014)


Sad news for entomologists, entomological systematists, and lepidopterists: Professor Niels Peder Kristensen died on December 6th.

His staff page contains all his biographical information. He spent the majority of his career in the prodigial Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen (now Natural History Museum of Copenhagen), where he did very influential work on the systematics of  insects, and specifically on basal Lepidopotera.

His chapter on the phylogeny of extant hexapods in the 1991 Insects of Australia is critical required reading for any entomology course. Despite its age, it is a comprehensive and still accurate explanation of the apomorphies of each hexapodan order. It has even proven to be predictive: his tentative conclusion that segmental vessels are secondarily reduced in termites, so including the termites as a clade within the Blattaria instead of being their own order, is now shown to be correct by all modern analyses.

In my own entomology courses, I also give his older 1975 review of insect orders as required reading. Systematics is as much a historical science as it is a scientific one, and this paper was truly a landmark look at insect phylogeny, providing a foundation on which all future work on the subject is based. Grimaldi & Engel (2005) even call it “the single most important paper in systematic entomology”, and any entomologist would be hard-pressed to disagree.

Other good reviews he has written about insect phylogeny are from 1981, 1995  (Zool. Bei. NF) and 1999 (Eur. J. Ent.).

As a scientist, he put his most intense focus on the Lepidoptera, and has ensured his legacy with important publications on their morphology and systematics, not least being his editing of the 2003 Lepidoptera morphology section of the Handbook of Zoology. In 1968, he marked his interest in basal Lepidoptera with an article on the anatomy of the Eriocraniidae, an interest he then developed to the maximum with his landmark 1984 paper on the morphology and systematics of basal Lepidoptera, which to this day is to be found in every lepideptorologist’s library.

By concentrating on basal taxa, he has achieved an almost-legendarily robust phylogeny of the Lepidoptera that stands the test of time and is one of the few examples of molecular phylogenies unable to change the traditional morphological hyothesis.

He might be most remembered to the world outside entomological systematics by his being one of the quartet who discovered the latest insect order, the Mantophasmatodea, in 2002 (Klass et al., 2002). His role in this research was analysing the internal structure of the specimens, which provided crucial evidence for the erection of the new order.

His death hits me personally in a few ways, even though I regrettably never met him. For one thing, 1997’s Arthropod Relationships was one of the most used-up book during my BSc. thesis, and his chapter in it was very useful for debugging my mysterious fossils (literally, I had to make sure they weren’t hexapods!).

More importantly, I am saddened by the death of an ideological kindred spirit. For me, Kristensen was a beacon from an age that I feel is dying. Today’s systematic biology is dominated by molecular analyses. It is now so fast and cheap to sequence that many scoff at the idea of doing morphological systematics. We can see this in the declining numbers of proper zoology courses, their now being relegated to specialisations or even left out completely until Master’s levels, resulting in a new crop of researchers who can’t tell an anus apart from an oral cavity (to give a non-hypothetical example).

It is now refreshing to see good, rigorous morphological work being published, and even orgasmic to see new systematic articles with morphological data properly used. I’ve outlined my problems with molecular systematics several times in the past (e.g. here, here), and I’m glad to report that in recent years, the situation has improved, with morphology somewhat becoming treated better. In Beutel & Kristensen (2012), Kristensen speculates on this happy trend, attributing it to much-improved technologies and sociological factors.

But still, morphological systematics is too often given short shrift, and one of its champions and dedicated practitioners has passed away, leaving behind a legacy that will influence our science for many years. Rest in peace, Niels Peder Kristensen.

Must Reads:

Beutel RG & Kristensen NP. 2012. Morphology and insect systematics in the era of phylogenomicsArthropod Structure & Development 41, 303-305.

Klass K-D, Zompro O, Kristensen NP & Adis J. 2002. Mantophasmatodea: A new insect order with extant members in the AfrotropicsScience 296, 1456-1459.

Kristensen NP. 1968. The anatomy of the head and alimentary canal of Eriocraniidae. Entomologiske Meddelelser 36, 137-151.

Kristensen NP. 1975The phylogeny of hexapod “orders”. A critical review of recent accountsJournal of Zoological Systematics and Evolutionary Research 13, 1-44.

Kristensen NP. 1981. Phylogeny of insect ordersAnnual Review of Entomology 26, 135-157.

Kristensen NP. 1984. Studies on the morphology and systematics of basal Lepidoptera. Steenstrupia 10, 141-191.

Kristensen NP. 1991. Phylogeny of Extant Hexapods. In: The Insects of Australia, 2nd ed..

Kristensen NP. 1995. Forty years insect phylogenetic systematics. Hennig’s “Kritische Bemerkungen…” and subsequent developments. Zoologische Beiträge, N. F. 36, 83-124.

Kristensen NP. 1997. The groundplan and basal diversification of the hexapods. In: Arthropod Relationships.

Kristensen NP. 1999. Phylogeny of endopterygote insects, the most successful lineage of living organisms. European Journal of Entomology 96, 237-254.

Kristensen NP (ed.). 2003Lepidoptera, Moths and Butterflies. Vol. 2: Morphology, Physiology, and Development. In: Handbook of Zoology IV: Arthropoda: Insecta, Part 36.

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