Beetle disappears as delicate web of life is disrupted

June 16, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

For what may have been thousands of years, a colony of tiny scavenger beetles scuttled among the rotting leaves on the shore of a pond in Seth State Forest near Easton. Then civilization caught up with them.

About 1982, state Department of Natural Resources foresters, unaware that the rare beetles were there, bulldozed the shore as part of a plan to attract nesting wood ducks to the pond. In 1984, another forestry crew cut some trees in the nearby woods to promote the growth of other timber.

By 1986, the Seth Forest beetle had vanished, perhaps from the face of the planet.

"It may have been the only site on Earth where that beetle occurred," said Warren Steiner Jr., museum specialist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. "It may have evolved there and been there forever, and now it's gone."

The possible extinction of this native Maryland bug may be a minuscule part of a global problem -- the decline of other species as an increasing number of humans hunt, farm, log, dam, mine, dredge, pave and populate the land.

Most of the concern about the declining diversity of life focuses on tropical rain forests, which shelter the vast majority of the world's species. But the fate of the Seth Forest beetle suggests how easily a rare species can vanish even in temperate climates such as Maryland's.

The insect was first discovered in 1974 by Paul Spangler, another Smithsonian entomologist. Later, a University of Maryland graduate student prepared to publish a study of the Seth Forest insect and to assign it a scientific name.

But the pace of scientific publishing can be glacial. By the early 1980s, the insect still hadn't been officially described or named. More important, entomologists hadn't formally notified state Natural Resources officials of its existence.

There was no sense of urgency, Mr. Steiner said, because the scientists assumed -- wrongly, it turned out -- that a state forest couldn't be disturbed. But in Maryland, state forests serve a variety of purposes. Parts can be logged or even clear-cut.

Mr. Steiner, whose parents live near Easton, said he heard about the grading and logging at Seth Forest pond and went out to investigate in 1986. He found scars from the bulldozing, about half the trees cut and no beetles.

That same year, Natural Resources officials said they considered further work on the pond to encourage ducks to nest there. But this time, an environmental study disclosed the fate of the anonymous beetle species. The project was abandoned.

"While the beetle didn't exist there any longer, there was a feeling that allowing some kind of a natural recovery of the pond would at least allow the habitat to exist" and give the insects a chance to return, said Eric Schwaab, a state forest specialist.

Scientists still can't be sure the creature is extinct. A few bugs could be scuttling in other ponds in other forests, Mr. Steiner cautioned. But so far none has been found.

Today, scientists who want to study the insect can go to a warehouse-sized room in the Museum of Natural History in Washington, a place nicknamed "Beetle Heaven." Six tiny Seth Forest beetles sit locked in cabinet 250, drawer 11. Each insect is pierced with a pin and tagged with a tiny label.

Mr. Steiner couldn't say how the Seth Forest beetle might have benefited mankind. And there are plenty of beetle species left. By one recent estimate, there are about 300,000 known beetle species, out of a total of 1,032,000 known animal species.

But entomologists mourn anyway.

"I just think that all forms of life exist for a purpose," Mr. Steiner said. "From our standpoint, it may not be directly important, but everything is a piece of this web of life."

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