Two cool papers out this week–one on the adaptive radiation of beetles, and the other on assassin bugs and their lovely habit of decorating themselves with the corpses of their prey.

The Other 95% did a great job of covering the bugs, so I’ll talk more about the beetles. What a huge project this must have been! They compiled genetic data from subfamilies containing most of the identified species of beetles (95%).  (edited 12/21 to clarify)

Beetles have long been known as an example of a massively diverse group. Almost 25% of ALL described species on earth are beetles. Asked what could be inferred about the work of the Creator from a study of his works, the British scientist J.B.S. Haldane is reported to have replied that he had “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” (also the title of a lovely beetle book, BTW.)

So…why are there so many beetles? That’s what this paper hoped to explore. Most of the existing superfamily groups were supported in this paper as being monophyletic, but explaining how they then diverged into the many different species was a bit difficult. Different hypotheses didn’t quite pan out (phytophagous vs. non-phyt driving speciation, tracking of angiosperm radiation, etc.).

They eventually decided multiple factors drove the amazing diversity of the Coleoptera:

“the extreme diversity of beetles reflects the Jurassic origin of numerous modern lineages, high lineage survival, and the diversification into a wide range of niches, including the utilization of all parts of plants. These switches into new niches occur repeatedly as, for example, the multiple shifts from terrestrial to aquatic habits in the evolutionary history of beetles, which occurred at least 10 time.”

Neat! Full citation:

Hunt, et al. 2007. A Comprehensive Phylogeny of Beetles Reveals the Evolutionary Origins of a Superradiation. Science 21 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5858, pp. 1913 – 1916.

Image courtesy of emblatame–check out the lovely big original.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. Um… “Most of the identified species of beetles” would be several hundred thousand species. The Hunt et al paper included not 95%, but about 1% of all beetle species. To include nearly all beetles would probably take decades of work. Still, 1% of all beetles is not anything to sniff at.

  2. Back to the paper…..
    They say:

    We compiled a three gene data matrix providing a complete taxonomic representation for all suborders, series and superfamilies; >80% of recognized families; and >60% of subfamilies (9, 10), which together contain >95% of described beetle species

    So, they didn’t study all the species, but representatives from subfamilies containing 95% of species.
    Poor wording on my part–does the correction I added make more sense?

  3. That does make more sense. I’m just sitting down to give the Hunt paper a thorough read myself.

  4. It’s still a huge amount of work–and something that I can’t even imagine happening if all we had were the taxonomy tools of 50 years ago.

  5. Well, I admit to being more than a bit biased in my opinion of this paper. Our competing consortium is doing 3000+ beetle taxa, 9-10 genetic loci, and 700+ morphological characters. I can appreciate the amount of effort the Hunt et al group put into their project, but it really is just a glimpse of what is to come…

  6. “switches into niches”

    That has to be the best echolalic phrase I’ve heard all month! (I’m finishing the bedroom wall painting, which is also a repetitious activity.)

    switches into niches * switches into niches * switches into niches * switches into niches * switches into niches * switches into niches …

  7. myrmecos–to an old school whole organism person like me, it all seems pretty impressive :D

    and now I’ve got that running in my head, Andrea!

  8. myrmecos,

    I hope you didn’t plan on using that computer for a month when you run your maximum parsimony analyses…

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