Not only bees, but also beetles are affected by a mass extinction. But the knowledge about the crawlers threatens to be lost more and more.
Oliver Hillert spans. During his summer vacation, he and his wife travel by car from Athens to a remote mountain village. Here, Daniela Hillert finds picturesque little-visited bays and her husband a dry, bush-strewn landscape: the preferred habitat of many beetles. Because they are Hillert's hobby. At the end of each working day he goes in search of creepy-crawlies, collects some, determines them and shares his discoveries with other beetle enthusiasts.
Collectors like Hillert generally do not have a good image because they kill animals, pierce with needles, and display in glass boxes. However, the fact is that even most scientific studies on insect numbers or insect behavior kill animals. And indeed, the volunteer beetle collectors make a major contribution to their protection: they identify species and their habitats and thus develop valuable knowledge. This is often overlooked, but this knowledge is necessary against the backdrop of species and insect dying than ever.
The big unknown
"It can be assumed that the beetles die too," says the beetle expert Dirk Ahrens from the Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig in Bonn. "And not only the rare, but also the widespread species." This is worrisome because beetles are indispensable to nature in many ways. They are food for jackdaws and jays or build, such as the dung beetle, excrement and organic matter. Not to mention creepy-crawlies such as fireflies and fireflies: the former kill snails, the latter the larvae of the bark beetle. The ladybug that eats aphids is sometimes even used for biological pest control.
But which types of beetles are affected by extinction? And how can they be best protected? Ahrens and other Beetle researchers can not answer these questions satisfactorily – they know too little.
In many endangered species in this country, such as songbirds or bees, single species, their distribution and their living conditions are well researched. Nature lovers and environmental organizations can thus become more involved in their protection. But the lobby of the beetle is too small: First, Germany counts only about 200 beetle fans who like Hillert devote their free time to the crawlies. On the other hand, research institutes employ no more than a handful of species scientists such as Ahrens to survey the animals. The approximately 7000 species of beetles that are common in Germany are all described. But in order to be able to relate the decline to individual species, the experts would have to collect beetles in many different places, count, determine their species and return to the same sites a few years later and repeat the investigations. "We simply do not have the staff," says Ahrens.
In order to better understand the feces of the beetles one day, the entomologist is involved in a spectacular project for species identification, the International Barcode of Life. The ambitious goal is the genetic identification of all animal, plant and fungus species worldwide and thus a detailed overview of biodiversity. Ahrens and his staff are responsible for collecting the creepy-crawlies of Germany.
The most important instrument of entomologists has been the microscope. It serves to distinguish the external characteristics. Based on the general appearance of the beetles, the shape of their genital organs and sometimes also of the wing vein, experts such as Ahrens and Hillert can assign individual specimens of a species. An elaborate process that can take many hours per beetle. You will not get around this optical analysis in the future, even to get the knowledge of artifacts. But the new project should facilitate the assignment: The individual known species are characterized by a DNA barcode, similar to a barcode for goods. It is therefore sufficient to match the corresponding DNA piece of a beetle with a database – a process that is computer-controlled and takes only a few minutes to complete. The goal is to be able to determine insects at some point with a decoder: "Like with spaceship Enterprise," says Dirk Ahrens, "just stop and you already know what kind it is."
But currently the researchers are still working on the creation of the database. "We only analyzed barcodes of two-thirds of the beetles that occur in Germany," says Ahrens. Each is a fragment of about 650 base pairs on the gene, which encodes an enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase-1 (CO1 gene). Its analysis is a common process for describing the species, as this gene segment occurs in all animals, usually in a unique way for each species. Ahrens and his colleagues assumed that the beetle species could also be clearly determined on the basis of this gene sequence. But in the course of the project, the scientists were taught a lesson.