By Guy Rogers in South Africa:
First female of rare beetle species found at Coega
08 February 2011
A member of the ancient Ichnostoma genus, the mysterious shiny black insect only occurs in particular habitat, and only surfaces for three days every year, just after rain.
It searches for a mate, procreates, then dies – never having eaten a thing. No wonder it has been so elusive, and for more than a century was actually considered to be extinct, elated co-discoverer Ernest Pringle said yesterday.
The species, Ichnostoma fuscipennis is recorded as having been first discovered in 1885 “in the PE area”. Then it vanished with the only faint hope coming a century later, in 1995, when Kwazulu-Natal beetle expert Prof Renzo Perissonoto discovered several fuscipennis carcasses in the Addo Elephant National Park.
Then, four years, later on the cusp of the millenium, in December 1999, Pringle made the breakthrough, collecting several male specimens in the park.
After a flurry of findings, however, despite all efforts to keep track of it, it disappeared again, this time for just over a decade, with still no evidence of a female or any viable breeding colony.
That was until Sunday when Pringle – who is also a farmer, president of Agri Eastern Cape and a renowned lepidopterist, best known for his role in the battle to save the Brenton blue butterfly – got a call from KZN.
“It was our friend Renzo. He always keeps in touch with rainfall reports because of how it affects different beetle species. He told me it had just rained at Coega, and suggested that we should get down there fast.”
The Pringles got to Coega yesterday morning and, after several fruitless hours, they hit the jackpot. There had been several males buzzing over the spekboom which they had caught in their nets, and then Anne spotted several males on the ground under a bush in a “loose scrum”, Pringle said.
“We saw they were digging which was sure sign of a female underneath. We had forgotten our trowel so we had to use sticks and stones like neanderthals but, in the end, there she was.”
By 1pm the heat had chased fuscipennis away but several male and two female specimens (larger and plain black without the silvery lines on the back like the males) had been captured in the bush either side of the Old Coega Road.
Gradually more is being learned about the species, Pringle said.
Rainfall of at least 25mm is needed to sink down and dissolve the clay cocoons in which the beetle eggs have been laid, and from which the larvae are waiting to escape and bore their way to the surface.
Fuscipennis does not seem to like the scrubby bush around Barkly Bridge for instance, or the rocky area like on top of Coega Kop. They seem to prefer the soil to be more loamy.
The little creature plays an important role processing leaf litter, which in turn speeds up the return of nutrients to the soil.
Because of its rarity, it is already been targeted by unscrupulous wildlife traders. A Somerset East man who was advertising it on the internet in a catalogue of other rare and protected species spent a week at Addo last year trying to locate it.
It never rained, however, the beetle never emerged, information on his presence was passed on to the authorities, and he is now under investigation.
Pringle said he would be sharing their success with Perissonoto and also communicating with the Coega Development Corporation for which he has already compiled a specialist report on the species.
“The hope is that they can limit development around this area near the old Coega Hotel.
“This little beetle takes us back into the mists of time. It is a piece of the puzzle of life. It deserves to be protected.”
Conservationists ask the public to take part in the first survey of the UK’s threatened oil beetles: here.
Rare hazel pot beetle makes its hideout in Sherwood Forest: here.
Ecological requirements of a rare saproxylic beetle – the beetles’ stronghold on the edge of its distribution area: here.