Author’s note: My blog survey continues, and all readers -- even new ones -- are invited to take it! Please see the end of this post for details.
You have probably seen a whirligig beetle, though you may not have known what you were looking at. I did not.
As a child in the southeast, I called the silvery gems whirling across the water like electron clouds “apple bugs”, because, as one of my friends informed me, they smelled like apples. I never attempted to catch one to find out – their evasion skills seemed to defy capture unless one was armed with a net, which I never was. Still, they were mesmerizing.
Not only are whirligig beetles fun to watch and smell, they’re also pretty darn cute, and, amazingly for a bug, they have flippers! Or at least what I would call flippers.
Like all flippers, they are flattened paddle-like swimming appendages that evolved from walking appendages, in this case, legs.
And because no article describing an insect can be complete without a description of the applicable bizarre male reproductive gear, here is the equipment in question.
In this group of beetles, the organ is referred to as an “aedeagus”, but the function is essentially the same as all such apparati – sperm transfer. It’s really quite graceful and beautiful, I think. I wonder what those brush-like lashes (setae) are for?
Whirligig beetles are not obscure. Not only are they abundant and widespread (and particularly common in the southeast United States), they call attention to themselves in the boldest possible way. And yet, in another demonstration that the invertebrate biodiversity of our planet remains largely terra incognita, a new species has been discovered in our very own back yard – Alabama.
It is the first new whirligig beetle to be discovered in the United States since 1991. University of New Mexico Grad student Grey Gustafson noticed the beetles while searching for a different species of whirligig beetle in the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama.
He had previously seen a collection of 11 unidentified specimens presumed to be an undescribed species in the 1970s. As it turned out, they were one and the same. He named the new group Dineutus shorti, not because it is short (in fact, these beetles are large by whirligig standards), but after an inspiring coleopterist he worked for at the University of Kansas, Andrew Short.
“That a large, charismatic beetle remained hereto undiscovered highlights the obvious need for increased surveys of the aquatic invertebrates of this region,” Gustafson and co-author Robert Sites – who alerted Gustafson to the existence of the specimens at the University of Missouri’s entomology museum – wrote in the paper describing the species in rather a large understatement.
Unfortunately, even as it is found, it appears the beetle is threatened. It seems to thrive in old-growth stands of long-leaf pine -- a disappearing ecosystem in the U.S. southeast – in Alabama and in the part of the Florida panhandle just across the border.
Ominously, one study has predicted that the region may experience another 10-20% habitat loss between 2001 and 2051.
I am curious about you! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau -- author of the blog From the Lab Bench -- to create a survey of all of my readers – new, old, and first-time readers alike. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve The Artful Amoeba and contribute to SCIENCE on blog readership. You will also get FREE science art from Paige's Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available, or guaranteed 2 per specific blog included in this survey) or a T-shirt. It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here: http://bit.ly/mysciblogreaders.
Gustafson, Grey T., and Robert W. Sites. "A North American Biodiversity Hotspot Gets Richer: A New Species of Whirligig Beetle (Coleoptera: Gyrinidae) From the Southeastern Coastal Plain of the United States." Annals of the Entomological Society of America (2015): sav100.