NSF grant to allow completion of beetle study in Central America, Mexico

Released on 03/31/2008, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb. -- , March 31st, 2008 —
Brett Ratcliffe in the field in Amazonian Bolivia (photo courtesy M. Jameson)
Brett Ratcliffe in the field in Amazonian Bolivia (photo courtesy M. Jameson)
Dynastine scarab beetle Megaceras septentrionis
Dynastine scarab beetle Megaceras septentrionis
Covers of previous NU State Museum bulletins on dynastine scarab beetles
Covers of previous NU State Museum bulletins on dynastine scarab beetles

Joni Mitchell sang in a 1970 hit that "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." That line could be the theme song for research by University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientists and others to study the biodiversity of beetles in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.

Brett Ratcliffe, curator of insects at the University of Nebraska State Museum, is leading the five-year research project funded by a $481,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the dynastine scarab beetles. Also known as rhinoceros beetles, they include some of the largest living insects, some reaching nearly 6 inches long.

"We have a whole package of trying to understand biodiversity in these developing countries, which for this group of animals that has not been very largely explored," said Ratcliffe, co-principal investigator of the grant with Ronald D. Cave of the University of Florida.

"We really have our work cut out for us, and there's a rush to do this because we are destroying habitat so rapidly around the world, especially in the tropical, developing countries, that we're losing species before we even discover them," Ratcliffe said. "And we don't know what that impact is going to be to humankind down the road if it turns out that some of these things could have been beneficial."

Ratcliffe said it's not only expansion of agricultural land and urban areas that threaten biodiversity, but Earth's warming climate is an extinction threat to species, especially those that are isolated on mountaintops in the desert areas of northern Mexico.

The most important thing for the new study, Ratcliffe said, is to help citizens in the three countries understand how important it is to them to preserve their local habitat.

"It's very difficult for North Americans to preach to people in developing countries how they should preserve their forests for the future and how valuable they are when we in this country have destroyed most of our original old-growth forest in the first place," he said. "And when you've got people down there who are starving to death and need to clear land to grow food, it's even harder. So we need to engage locals to understand why habitat preservation is important to them, not to us."

And to preserve habitat, Ratcliffe said, local citizens have to know what's there, and that's where studies like this one come in.

"You cannot manage your national parks and reserves in any country unless you know the composition of the flora and the fauna -- what plants and animals live there," Ratcliffe said. "By doing this, we are establishing baseline information about what is there. Resource managers in those countries are going to be able to use this information to properly manage their parks and reserves -- and the country's natural resources."

Ratcliffe, Cave and graduate students will travel to the countries twice a year for the next five years to collect beetles, starting with a trip to Belize in June. They will concentrate on areas that haven't been extensively sampled before. They will also rely on a network of collaborating local entomologists in the three countries. In addition, the grant provides for the local collaborators to develop a system of parataxonomists, lay people living in the area and who will be paid to collect specimens year-round.

At the end of the grant, Ratcliffe and Cave will produce a book that will provide a comprehensive description of the dynastine scarab beetles in the three countries. Ratcliffe said it's the third in a series of five books. The first, which he wrote, was on the rhinoceros beetles of Panama and Costa Rica (2003). The second, a collaboration with Cave, dealt with Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador (2006). The fourth book will be on the West Indies and the fifth on the United States and Canada.

Ratcliffe said many of the beetles collected in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize will be deposited in museum collections in those countries and others will find their way back to the NU State Museum's scarab beetle collection in Lincoln, which ranks as one of the largest in the world at approximately 2 million specimens.