Published on 03/10/05

Researcher identifies new species

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Joe McHugh stands in a murky creek examining a mossy log. In a bright orange mushroom, he finds what he's been hunting: a tiny beetle. It's not particularly striking, but he's never seen another just like it. He carefully places it into a vial of alcohol.

McHugh's not a Boy Scout working on his insect study badge. He's the University of Georgia's coleopterist, a beetle specialist.

He and his research team are working to identify undescribed beetle species. Scientists figure beetle species numbers at 3 million to 10 million.

Millions to identify

"So far, only about 365,000 beetle species have been described," McHugh said. "To put that number into perspective, one out of every five known species on Earth is some type of beetle."

Each species has a particular role in the environment as part of that ecosystem, he said. Eliminating just one could produce effects 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 might disappear or some other creature could suddenly become overabundant and cause problems."

Since McHugh joined the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences faculty in 1995, he's discovered and described 18 new beetle species. He found three new genera, too, and was the first to describe the immature stages of several species.

Adults and immatures don't look alike

"Immature beetles aren't simply small beetles," he said. "They're grub-like larvae, just as caterpillars are the immature forms of butterflies. The adults and larvae of one beetle species can be totally different in appearance, behavior and ecology. In some cases, you'd never realize that the different forms represent the same species."

McHugh and his team recently finished the first year of a five-year, $724,000 National Science Foundation Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy grant project.

Under the grant, the team is focusing on the Cerylonid series, a group of little-known beetles. This group of seven families includes 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 are associated with them are often overlooked. But they, too, are valuable parts of a healthy ecosystem."

McHugh and his team are writing descriptions and keys, photographing the species and developing a Web site to share the new information with scientists worldwide.

Travelling and searching

The UGA team is studying thousands of specimens borrowed from museums around the world. They're collecting new samples from the field, too, for aspects of the project that require data from different developmental stages or from DNA.

They just returned from an expedition to Bolivia. Over the next four years, they plan to go to Panama, Chile, South Africa and Australia.

"There are representatives of the Cerylonid series all over the world, with the exception of Antarctica," McHugh said.

Besides describing the unknown species, the project will help to train five new coleopterists.

"We're training new beetle experts," he said. "By the time my students finish their Ph.D.'s, each one will be the world authority on one of these poorly known groups."

Naming them's a perk

When 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 his wife Roxanne. Because his wife tolerated his "always being out bug hunting or working in the lab," there's a Peruvian beetle now known as Genisphindus roxannae.

"I think she was honored, even though it wasn't an exceptionally flashy or colorful beetle," McHugh said. "It was elegant and beautiful in its own way."

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.