As I join my family around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, I look forward to the tradition of sharing various things we are thankful for. My family knows me as the crazy/cool science guy so naturally I have a unique response to what I am thankful for this year–BEETLES. As an amateur entomologist, beetles are my favorite insects to collect and learn about. They come in so many shapes, sizes and colors. In fact, they comprise more than one-fourth of all known animal species and scientists estimate that there are still thousands of beetle species still to be discovered. Beetles were the original pollinators of plants and trees, even before bees, birds, moths, and butterflies. Beetles can be found in the driest of deserts, in the tallest of mountains, and in the wettest of waters. So I propose a Thanksgiving toast to Coleoptera, the first great pollinators, the order of insects that has reached 300,000 species worldwide and counting, and the charming insect that has captured the hearts of humans for thousands of years.
Join me in my celebration as I highlight a new fascinating beetle every day of this week of Thanksgiving.
The one insect I would never want to be is probably the dung beetle. Spending your life clinging to the rear-end of large mammals waiting in anticipation for your next meal of fresh feces is not the life for me. But the importance of dung beetles for our planet is HUGE. Dung beetles will bury big balls of dung in the ground for later meals and for a safe, nutritious depository for their eggs. In the process, they contribute greatly to nutrient recycling and fertilization of the Earth. Even the ancient Egyptians were savvy to the importance of dung beetles as they deemed one species, Scarabaeus sacer, a living god on Earth. The Egyptians were known to wear scarab jewelry and apparel as well as adorn their homes and tombs with the image of this immortalized beetle.
The father of evolution, Charles Darwin, was an avid insect collector. He was one of the first humans to discover the noxious poison ejected by certain species of beetles. While collecting beetles, Darwin had two interesting specimens in either hand but had found a third rare beetle and so, naturally, he stored one of his three beetles in his mouth. This is where the discovery of such nasty chemical ejections occurred. Fortunately for Charles Darwin, it was not a Bombardier beetle he popped in his mouth.
Bombardier beetles are tiny but pack one of the most potent punches in the insect world. They have two separate chambers within their abdomens that store potentially harmful chemicals when mixed together. When the beetle feels threatened, it combines the contents of both abdominal chambers into a corrosive cocktail which it launches from a rotating, turret-like organ at the end of its abdomen. This burning mixture can reach temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius. The ingenuity of evolution found within this creature is the fact that the chemicals it creates are stored separately within its body and only combined upon ejection where it forms a lethal chemical reaction. The beetle would die if these chemicals were stored together.
Namib Desert Beetle
There are parts of this planet where survival is a luxury and where humans simply could not naturally live. The Namib Desert of Southern Africa is one of those places. It is hard to imagine any animal living in such a consistently hot and dry place. The Namib desert beetle not only thrives in this ecosystem, but it is inspiring human technology with its ingenious adaptation. In the arid desert mornings, this beetle may be seen inclining its back high into the sky to collect even the tiniest of water drops in the air. On the backs of this beetle are a unique and clever combination of hydrophilic (attracts water) bumps and hydrophobic (repels water) grooves. This physical adaptation allows the beetle collect large drops of water on its back. Once it gets big enough to roll down its back and into its mouth, the beetle has quenched its thirst in one of the driest locations on Earth. Scientists and engineers are hoping to take advantage of this gift of evolution by manufacturing materials humans can wear to gather moisture from the air in places where clean water is harder to come by.
The dominion of beetles is not limited to the land. There are multiple beetle species that thrive in aquatic environments as well. From fast diving speeds to specialized hairs for underwater breathing, beetles have developed many adaptations for the water. The whirligig beetle has some of my favorite adaptations for hunting in the water. This beetle has divided eyes, similar to bifocals, for seeing above the water and below the water. But that’s not all, this beetle can spin, turn, and change directions on a dime in the water. Most aquatic animals have flexible bodies so they can make such sharp turns in the water. But the whirligig beetle is not flexible and is built more like a sturdy fishing boat. It uses its specialized limbs and wings to make those sharp turns. Scientists and engineers are currently conducting research on the whirligig beetle’s ability to maneuver in the water. There is potential for creating better AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles) based on the whirligig beetle’s design.
In conclusion, I hope you have gained at least a little greater appreciation for beetles. Or at least, I hope you were able to dream about these beautiful creatures crawling all over your Thanksgiving dinner table, in all their various shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns. I know I did! Beetles truly are an amazingly diverse group with some very unique adaptations that humanity is only now starting to utilize in our own technology. So a final toast to the order of Coleoptera. May they continue to evolve and prove their dominance in the animal kingdom.
THANK YOU for reading! Please comment below and let me know how I am doing to help you see your world through the intriguing lens of science.