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Seven new beetle species identified in Canada

06/11/2012 09:13:33

Smallest-of-all? (S of A). One of the tiny beetles discovered in Alberta. Photo credit John Ulan, University of Alberta

Tiny forest beetles are not rare

November 2012. Seven beetle species new to science have been discovered by a young University of Alberta researcher just starting out in her career. Charlene Wood, who had only just finished her master's degree in the Department of Renewable Resources, noted the tinier-than-usual species while studying beetles in decaying aspen trees in northwestern Alberta.

Now Wood, in collaboration with fellow scientists, is preparing to describe the beetles for science. Having studied them over the past four years, Wood is becoming recognized for her knowledge of this group, known by only a few other experts across the globe.

Her study of deadwood-a largely overlooked part of the North American boreal forest-is one of the few studies in Canada focused on the rich diversity of beetles that dwell in decaying wood. Wood's work revealed different beetles in each stage of the decay sequence in aspen wood. Along with recording seven new species in this habitat, Wood found an additional 47 beetle species not previously known to occur in Alberta-a significant addition to the list of provincial species.

Wood said "It's a dream, as a biologist. I certainly didn't think I would discover new species when I began my project. It's an eye-opener. There are several species right under our noses that we didn't know even existed."

Less than 3 millimetres long
All seven species she found are less than three millimetres long; most beetles studied are larger and more conspicuous, Wood said. Six of the species feed on fungus and are members of the group known as minute brown scavenger beetles. The seventh species is a monotomid beetle, which is thought live in the tunnels created by bark beetles in newly dead trees and feed on fungus and larvae of other beetles.

"Deadwood offers a whole variety of distinct habitats, and those habitats are home to hundreds of beetle species, some of which haven't been scientifically reported yet," added Wood, who has successfully defended her thesis and admits to being excited about finding the beetles.

Not rare
Some of the new beetle species are quite abundant, and Wood feels they could be more widespread in Canada.

"While these are undescribed species, they aren't rare or uncommon beetles. That they haven't been reported previously is likely a consequence of limited taxonomic expertise and lack of studies on non-pest species."

Vital part of forest ecosystem
Beetles are important players in forest ecosystems, Wood said. The insects are a food source for songbirds and woodpeckers, and by consuming the wood of dead trees and then excreting the digested wood fragments, many beetles help return to forest soils nutrients that were once taken up by living trees.

"I often get the ‘ick' factor when I tell people I study beetles, but they are a fascinating and important group for us to understand. Beetles are very diverse, they occupy most major habitats on land, and very few are pests. Contrary to being harmful to humans, they do us a service by being important natural components of many ecosystems."

Wood hopes her research increases understanding of how beetles contribute to overall forest diversity, and how to preserve their habitats while harvesting resources.

"If one of the central tenets of sustainable forest management is to maintain biodiversity, the first step is knowing the species and what habitats they really require."

Wood's work was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Conservation Association Grants in Biodiversity, the EMEND project and Daishowa-Marubeni International Ltd.

Wood's work is associated with the U of A's Ecosystem Management Emulating Natural Disturbance (EMEND) project.

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