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What do beetle taxonomists do on their holidays?

By: Dr Chris Reid, Category: AMRI, Date: 07 Oct 2015

For some reason my family holidays always seem to include good beetle collecting localities, even in the most unlikely places.

Lighthouse Island

Lighthouse Island
Photographer: Shane Wolsey © Shane Wolsey

I'm a beetle taxonomist at the Australian Museum Research Institute, working primarily on the Australian fauna. We have a few beetle specimens in the collections (more than a million) but there is always room for more, especially if they fill in gaps in representation. For example our collection of British material mostly consists of ancient specimens in relatively poor condition. So a visit to relatives in the UK meant an opportunity to do a bit of useful collecting.

The UK fauna is fantastically well documented in both species identification and species distribution. There aren’t any undescribed native species to be found (I’ve described a new species accidentally introduced from Australia, but that was exceptional), so the focus for collectors is on geographic coverage – finding species A in locality X for the first time can be a publishable event. This image of the UK & Irish records of beetles (Coleoptera) shows the impressive distribution data. This suggests that it’s difficult to make discoveries.

I’m from the UK and all my relatives are in the UK, so that’s where we head off on holidays when we can. I was brought up in County Down, in the north-east of Ireland. One of the local nature reserves was Copeland Bird Observatory, on an island of 16 hectares maintained for the conservation and study of birds. Being in Ireland, this island is called Lighthouse Island, even though the lighthouse is built on the island next to it.

Whenever I could I spent weekends on the island along with its 3000 pairs of raucous Herring Gulls. On Mondays I paid little attention to school lessons because I was still dreaming about the weekend’s adventures and still had the ringing cries of the gulls in my head.

So on the last trip ‘home’ I wanted to share the special ambience of the island with my son. We managed to spend a day there away from the relos. He wandered off, discovering and photographing the young and rather helpless grey seal pups. And I set off in the opposite direction with a net in hand aiming to find some ‘old friends’ from 45 years ago.

It was late in the year, September, and there wasn’t much around, but some sea daisies were flowering. I swept the net through them, and in one sweep collected a number of small dark weevils. There is no identification key to small dark weevils in Australia. However in the UK there is an excellent key to all the species and I quickly discovered that the weevils I had collected were unknown from Northern Ireland and had only been collected twice before in the whole of Ireland.

This sort of discovery is always publishable. But it also gave me the opportunity to review all notable insect species found on Lighthouse Island, which turned out to be quite a few.

There are two interesting points to be made out of this story. One, for collectors, is never dismiss an area because it has been already studied. Two: the importance of identification keys is paramount in our professional work. The lack of such keys is the stumbling block for Australians to make similar discoveries.

So that’s what beetle taxonomists do on their holidays!

 

Dr Chris Reid
Principal Research Scientist


More information:
Reid, C & Leonard, K (2015) Diplapion confluens (Kirby, 1808) (Coleoptera: Brentidae), new for Northern Ireland, at Lighthouse Island, County Down, with notes on other insects at this locality. Irish Naturalists Journal 34(2).

Tags beetle, AMRI, Australian Museum Research Institute, UK, Ireland,