AN INORDINATE FONDNESS FOR BEETLES PDF

Around , species of beetle have been described, which accounts for a quarter of all known animal species. There are more species of ladybugs than mammals, of longhorn beetles than birds, of weevils than fish. Textbooks and scientific papers regularly state that beetles are the most speciose group of animals; that is, there are more of them than there are of anything else. But Andrew Forbes , from the University of Iowa, thinks that this factoid cannot possibly be right. Beetles are often conspicuous, shiny, beautiful, and varied—qualities which meant that 19th-century naturalists like Charles Darwin collected them for sport, and eagerly compared the size of their collections. Forbes studies parasitoid wasps.

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Around , species of beetle have been described, which accounts for a quarter of all known animal species. There are more species of ladybugs than mammals, of longhorn beetles than birds, of weevils than fish. Textbooks and scientific papers regularly state that beetles are the most speciose group of animals; that is, there are more of them than there are of anything else. But Andrew Forbes , from the University of Iowa, thinks that this factoid cannot possibly be right.

Beetles are often conspicuous, shiny, beautiful, and varied—qualities which meant that 19th-century naturalists like Charles Darwin collected them for sport, and eagerly compared the size of their collections. Forbes studies parasitoid wasps.

These creatures use their stingers to lay eggs in or on the bodies of insects and other hosts. The grubs, upon hatching, devour their hosts alive, sometimes commandeering their minds and changing their behavior, and sometimes bursting out of their desiccated carcasses.

Their lives are grisly and sinister, but their abilities are incredible. No one really knows how many of them there are.

They can spend much of their lives hidden inside the bodies of other insects. And since they specialize in body-snatching, they can be incredibly small.

The smallest of them, the fairy wasps , parasitize millimeter-long insects, and are themselves no bigger than a single-celled amoeba. This means that when scientists try to catalog the number of insects in a given area, they often ignore all but the biggest and most conspicuous parasitic wasps.

Other insects, however, do not ignore them. It seems that every species of insect is targeted by at least one species of parasitic wasp— if not several. They include the crypt-keeper wasp that was newly identified last year. Even those that live under water have their own particular wasp nemeses. Surely then, he argues, parasitic wasps must outnumber beetles in terms of species? In their paper, Forbes and colleagues argue that this is unlikely.

They focused on four different genera of North American insects that have been very well studied: Rhagolettis fruit flies, Malacosoma tent caterpillars, Dendroctonus bark beetles, and Neodiprion sawflies. They then tallied the parasitic wasps that are known to specifically target these groups and these alone. By extrapolating this conservative figure out to other insect groups, they estimated that the parasitic wasps probably outnumber the beetles by somewhere between 2.

I really think the only people that would disagree would be the fly people. Wasps, on the other hand, are all about parasitism. So for each beetle species there are probably at least two wasp parasitoids: One [that targets] the eggs and one [that targets] the larvae.

There are a few other animal groups that could potentially be more speciose than the wasps. For example, insects also harbor bloodsucking mites and parasitic nematode worms.

The same argument that Forbes makes for the wasps could also be made for these other groups, which are studied even less. The defining innovation of the animal kingdom is not the stone tool of the ape nor the flight-capable feather of the bird, nor the hive mind of the ant, but the egg-laying stinger of the parasitic wasp. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters theatlantic.

Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science.

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