A rare new beetle on the block

Endangered: A tiny pond bug, designated as a species only last fall, takes its name from its home in Maryland's Seth State Forest.

Medicine & Science

March 08, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a forest near Easton, a one-of-a-kind creature lurks in the seasonal ponds created each spring by rainfall and melting snow.

Most people would have a hard time spotting the Seth Forest water scavenger beetle. Researchers familiar with the shiny, black, gnat-sized insect spent six years just nailing down the range of its habitat.

"It's not an easy thing to find or keep track of," said James M. McCann, the Maryland state zoologist who helped identify the beetle.

After years of study, McCann and other wildlife experts officially designated the beetle as a new species last fall and classified it as endangered.

Researchers had been searching for the hydrochus beetle off and on since 1974, when it was first described in a University of Maryland research paper. Other UM researchers hunted for it periodically in the 1970s, and state Department of Natural Resources biologists joined the hunt in the late 1980s, McCann said.

But efforts were sporadic until 1997, when the Nature Conservancy awarded DNR a $9,200 grant to try to find it.

McCann then called Warren Steiner, an entomologist with the Smithsonian Institution, and they set off on a Saturday morning to seek out the beetle in its only known habitat - the wetlands of the Seth State Forest in Talbot County.

At the time, McCann was not optimistic. The wetlands had been bulldozed in 1982, with old- growth trees cleared to create suitable habitat for wood ducks and other waterfowl.

The habitat

By 1997, scientists realized that the beetles preferred a canopy of old-growth trees and shallow, "vernal" pools, which are unsuitable for fish because they nearly dry up every summer. The beetles feed on tree leaves that fall into the water, McCann said.

"You need an area with deep shade and good water quality," he said.

McCann said that he and Steiner found 18 beetles in the state forest on that first trip. Over the next six years, he and others periodically surveyed surrounding areas to determine the beetle's habitat, scouting dozens of potential locations.

They found that it exists only in three pools in the state forest and two other pools on a privately owned tract nearby, he said.

The researchers published their findings in a scientific journal in November, essentially establishing a new species of beetle. The report authors include Steiner; McCann; Charles L. Staines, a private consultant; and J. Lee Hellman, the retired UM entomologist who first documented the beetle's existence in 1974.

Beetles and birds

When someone discovers a new type of bird, it requires a review by the American Ornithologists Union before the discovery can be classified as a new species, McCann said. But for beetles, validation of the discovery comes with acceptance of the findings by a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

"The findings are carefully reviewed, but it's not the same process as with birds," said Chris Carlton, the editor of Coleopterist Bulletin, which published McCann's article.

That's because there are so many beetles. Considered the most varied creatures on Earth, there are 300,000 known species. Scientists estimate a million species have yet to be discovered.

"It's a big deal to discover a new species of bird, but it's not such a big deal to find a new beetle," said Carlton, an entomologist at Louisiana State University's Agricultural Center who has discovered 14 species of beetles.

New understanding

Still, identifying new species of beetles is important, Carlton said, because it helps scientists understand ecosystems and habitats.

"You can only know how to manage a habitat if you know what lives there," he said.

McCann said that listing the beetle as endangered also gives the insect added protection if any development is proposed that would affect its habitat.

"If you had a large subdivision planned that would be drawing ground water, it would be looked at differently, with a more critical eye, than if the beetle weren't listed," he said.

The beetle is one of only a handful of plants and animals with habitats limited to Maryland. Others include the Eastern sedge barrens planthopper, found only in Soldiers Delight in Baltimore County; and the Maryland darter, a fish limited to the Susquehanna River watershed. Some experts think the fish is extinct.

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