Charles Darwin is not only known as the father of evolution, he also has a reputation as an excellent field biologist. On his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle from 1831-1836, he stopped along the coast of Argentina at Bahía Blanca, approximately 400 miles south of Buenos Aires. Among the many specimens he collected was a beetle that’s been lost for a long time, but was recently found by UTC Associate Professor Dr. Stylianos Chatzimanolis, who works in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
Chatzimanolis requested specimens of rove beetles from the Natural History Museum, London. Among the unidentified, unsorted materials he received he made an exciting discovery—a beetle tagged as part of the Darwin collection. Apparently, it had been placed in a drawer, separated from the collection. The loss was noted in Kenneth G.V. Smith’s “Darwin’s Insects, Charles Darwin’s Entomological Notes,” published in 1987, which documented everything Smith could find of the Darwin collection.
With its unusual razor-like antenna, jewel-tone colors, and substantial size of nearly two centimeters, it’s surprising it was overlooked, never examined by an expert and described for the scientific community.
That became the job of Chatzimanolis. He has described it as a new genus and species of Xanthopygina, “a group of large and colorful rove beetles distributed in the New World tropics.” Most of the beetles Chatzimanolis works with are much smaller. He named the newly found beetle Darwinilus sedarisi in honor of Darwin and David Sedaris, a writer.
“While I was doing this work, I listened to about seven or eight of David Sedaris’ books on tape. He’s a quirky guy with a great sense of humor. In his books, you can tell he’s fascinated with insects and arachnids. The name is in appreciation for Sedaris’ fascination with the natural world,” he said.
Chatzimanolis’ academic paper “Darwin’s legacy to rove beetles (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae): A new genus and a new species, including materials collected on the Beagle’s voyage” was published in the open access, peer-reviewed online journal ZooKeys on February 12, 2014—what would have been Darwin’s 205th birthday.
Though most birds and mammals have been described by scientists, Chatzimanolis says they are still in the “discovery phase” with insects. There are more than one million species of described insects, but conservative estimates suggest there are five million insects that have not been described.
“One of the issues in my field is how we are expediting the discovery process, because we want to discover these insects before they become extinct,” he explained.
Chatzimanolis became interested in beetles as an undergraduate. During his sophomore year at the University of Crete in Greece he volunteered at the Natural History Museum there.
“The plan was to rotate among different labs. So you would start with insects, then go to mollusks, then to reptiles. But I got so fascinated by beetles that I got stuck!” he explained.
Besides the Darwin specimen, only one other Darwinilus sedarisi specimen was collected about a hundred years ago, several hundred miles away from where Darwin collected the first specimen in Argentina. When Darwin found the beetle, it was living in a forest. Now the land that lies between where the two specimens were collected has been converted to agricultural fields, something Chatzimanolis believes could have led to the beetle’s demise.
“I don’t know the role this insect had in its environment,” Chatzimanolis said. “That’s one of the problems when things go extinct without us studying them first.”
Cover photo credit: Natural History Museum, London