Beetle searching

first_imgTravelling and searchingThe UGA team is studying thousands of specimens borrowed frommuseums around the world. They’re collecting new samples from thefield, too, for aspects of the project that require data fromdifferent developmental stages or from DNA.They just returned from an expedition to Bolivia. Over the nextfour years, they plan to go to Panama, Chile, South Africa andAustralia.”There are representatives of the Cerylonid series all over theworld, with the exception of Antarctica,” McHugh said.Besides describing the unknown species, the project will help totrain five new coleopterists.”We’re training new beetle experts,” he said. “By the time mystudents finish their Ph.D.’s, each one will be the worldauthority on one of these poorly known groups.” By Sharon OmahenUniversity of GeorgiaJoe McHugh stands in a murky creek examining a mossy log. In abright orange mushroom, he finds what he’s been hunting: a tinybeetle. It’s not particularly striking, but he’s never seenanother just like it. He carefully places it into a vial ofalcohol.McHugh’s not a Boy Scout working on his insect study badge. He’sthe University of Georgia’s coleopterist, a beetle specialist.He and his research team are working to identify undescribedbeetle species. Scientists figure beetle species numbers at 3million to 10 million. Naming them’s a perkWhen a systematist describes a new species, he gets to name it.McHugh named one in honor of his high school science mentor,another for his master’s thesis advisor and one in honor of hiswife Roxanne. Because his wife tolerated his “always being outbug hunting or working in the lab,” there’s a Peruvian beetle nowknown as Genisphindus roxannae.”I think she was honored, even though it wasn’t an exceptionallyflashy or colorful beetle,” McHugh said. “It was elegant andbeautiful in its own way.” Millions to identify”So far, only about 365,000 beetle species have been described,”McHugh said. “To put that number into perspective, one out ofevery five known species on Earth is some type of beetle.”Each species has a particular role in the environment as part ofthat ecosystem, he said. Eliminating just one could produceeffects on other animals and plants.”Most insects you see in nature are part of a balanced ecosystem.They all have a role,” he said. “We might not know what it is,but without this beetle or that fly, a particular plant mightdisappear or some other creature could suddenly becomeoverabundant and cause problems.”Since McHugh joined the UGA College of Agricultural andEnvironmental Sciences faculty in 1995, he’s discovered anddescribed 18 new beetle species. He found three new genera, too,and was the first to describe the immature stages of severalspecies. Adults and immatures don’t look alike”Immature beetles aren’t simply small beetles,” he said. “They’regrub-like larvae, just as caterpillars are the immature forms ofbutterflies. The adults and larvae of one beetle species can betotally different in appearance, behavior and ecology. In somecases, you’d never realize that the different forms represent thesame species.”McHugh and his team recently finished the first year of afive-year, $724,000 National Science Foundation Partnerships forEnhancing Expertise in Taxonomy grant project.Under the grant, the team is focusing on the Cerylonid series, agroup of little-known beetles. This group of seven familiesincludes ladybugs and their close relatives.”Although most ladybugs are predators of other insects, some are(plant eaters), and many of their closest relatives are …fungus eaters,” McHugh said. “Fungi and the beetles that areassociated with them are often overlooked. But they, too, arevaluable parts of a healthy ecosystem.”McHugh and his team are writing descriptions and keys,photographing the species and developing a Web site to share thenew information with scientists worldwide.last_img

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