Persistence of beetle pleases scientists

 The pygmy scarab was thought extinct, off and on, since the 1950s.

Published July 12, 2006

This is about a bug that disappeared. And reappeared. And disappeared again.

It's just a little bug, less than a quarter of an inch long. But it's got a lot in common with other bigger and better-known Florida wildlife like the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

For 40 years, experts thought Florida's pygmy scarab was extinct. Discovered in 1878 in the rolling sandhills of Central Florida, the bug formally known as Anomala exigua hadn't been seen since the 1950s. Surely it no longer existed.

But in 1998, a pair of determined scientists mounted an intensive search in Lake and Polk counties and found the pygmy scarab in four places. Their joy was short-lived.

"All the areas where we knew it existed were being bulldozed," said one of the two scientists, Paul Skelley, an entomologist for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Because the females are flightless, preferring to burrow into the sand, "they don't get around much," Skelley said. "So if you bulldoze their habitat, they're gone."

Extinction seemed certain.

Then along came Dave Almquist, a zoologist who works for an organization called the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, a nonprofit organization administered by Florida State University that keeps a database of the state's biological diversity. He decided to try to find the pygmy scarab again.

The problem is, the little beetle makes its home amid the ancient dunes of the Lake Wales ridge, a seashore from 2-million years in the past, when the ocean washed over much of the Florida peninsula.

A century ago the Lake Wales ridge covered as much as 100,000 acres in the middle of the state. But by 1990 about 85 percent of it was gone, converted to orange groves or new subdivisions. That has been bad news not just for pygmy scarabs but also for gopher tortoises and other creatures that thrived on the ecologically rich Lake Wales ridge.

Finding the elusive pygmy scarab required Almquist to pinpoint the remaining bits of what Skelley described as the bug's "post-apocalyptic habitat": undeveloped places in the ridge with large, bare patches of sand interspersed with stands of wiregrass and gopher apple.

With the help of colleagues, Almquist hunted through FNAI's computer database and checked aerial photos of undeveloped land in Central Florida.

Why go to so much trouble to find a tiny bug?

"To me, losing a species is far worse than losing the most valuable work of art," Almquist explained in an e-mail. "It is likely that someone could paint a picture that would look exactly like the Mona Lisa, but it is impossible to resurrect an extinct species."

Besides, he pointed out, nobody knows much about the pygmy scarab - at least not yet.

"I'm not suggesting that if this beetle went extinct that it is likely that there would be any major effect on ecosystems or people," he said, "but just that it is a bad idea to allow something to disappear forever when you don't even know its value."

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Almquist's search soon focused on the Tiger Creek Preserve in Polk County, 5,000 acres of hardwood swamps, oak scrub, pine flatwoods and sandhills owned by the Nature Conservancy.

The staff of the Tiger Creek Preserve did not know if their sandhills held any pygmy scarabs, Skelley said, but that's not unusual. "Knowledge of the insect fauna on our preserved lands is extremely poor," Skelley said. The variety of bugs can be startling - so far entomologists have found more than 4,500 species of beetles alone, he said.

Panthers and manatees get the most attention among Florida's endangered species. But if you want to find something that no one has seen before, check out all the bugs swarming the Sunshine State. There are at least 12,500 species, and undiscovered ones turn up every year.

"We have new and rare species of insects all over Florida," Skelley said. "The stuff's just all over the place. You just have to open your eyes."

Almquist persuaded Skelley to go scarab-hunting with him at the Tiger Creek Preserve. They started searching the preserve on a Friday morning, May 19, a sunny day with very little breeze.

Male pygmy scarabs tend to sit on the tips of low brush, "waving their antennae trying to catch a whiff of the females' pheromones," Skelley said. So the best way to catch a pygmy scarab is to sweep a net back and forth through the underbrush, over and over.

Almquist said he swept his net through so much of the preserve that morning that he suffered from something like tennis elbow for days afterward.

"Between the heat, the exercise, the lack of shade and the excitement, we were sweating," he said. Then Almquist looked into his net and, he recalled, "yelled something like 'I THINK I'VE GOT ONE!!!' "

Then it nearly disappeared again.

* * n

Last year birdwatchers found evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in 1944, was not extinct but just hiding in Arkansas wilderness owned by the Nature Conservancy.

"Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills," Tim Gallagher, one of a pair of scientists who spotted it during a canoe trip last year, said at a news conference announcing the discovery. "It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave."

Every year brings news that some rare species everyone thought was extinct has resurfaced like the coelacanth, a primitive fish. The rediscovery of the pygmy scarab almost didn't happen, because when Almquist reached down to get the insect out of his net it nearly got away from him. "They are so fast and agile," he said.

Skelley hurried over and confirmed that this was, indeed, the missing Anomala exigua. Almquist said he felt exhilarated - and not for entirely scientific reasons.

"I had planned this trip to go after that beetle, but it seemed somewhat unlikely we would find it," he explained. "Now I can say it wasn't a waste, and I won't look like a complete idiot."

By morning's end they had found four pygmy scarabs on the preserve. That means the little beetle, while rare, probably will avoid extinction.

But Almquist does not think the scarab should be put on a state or federal endangered species list to protect it from further habitat losses. That's because at this point, he said, scientists can't predict its future.

"We know almost nothing about this guy, and it's the same for the vast majority of insects," he said. "We don't know where they eat, where they live - we don't know squat about them. But at least we know it's still around."