Holiday hunt: Australian scientist seeks out missing Christmas beetles

The researcher fears the species may be going extinct.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Is the Christmas beetle on the verge of extinction.jpg
Is the Christmas beetle on the verge of extinction?

Nur Diana/iStock 

Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Dr. Tanya Latty has launched the "Christmas beetle count project" in Australia, according to a report by the BBC published on Thursday.

The festive insects that once roamed all over the country have been missing as of late, probably due to the destruction of their natural habitats.

Looking for a reason behind the decline

Now, Latty wants to figure out exactly what has been happening.

"There are lots of people who seem to remember that these beetles used to be in massive numbers, you know - 10, 20 years ago. But that doesn't seem to be happening anymore," Latty told the BBC

The initiative asks Australians to upload pictures of any Christmas beetles they see this holiday season to an app. The hope is that through these efforts Latty can estimate how many are still around and what is causing their decline. 

"Without numbers, we can't even begin to address the conservation issues here," Latty said. 

"Often we don't have the resources to do the kinds of large scale surveys... so this allows us to get lots of people out there collecting data from hopefully everywhere in the country." 

Holiday hunt: Australian scientist seeks out missing Christmas beetles
The Christmas beetle is a completely harmless animal.

Latty encouraged Australians everywhere not to ignore her project and to share as much data as they can. 

"This is sort of everyone's opportunity to contribute to protecting biodiversity. We don't really often have opportunities to be involved in these sorts of large-scale conservation projects," she said. 

"If it's going to take you a minute to upload that picture but potentially have a huge conservation benefit, why wouldn't you do it?"

The effort is especially important as it may highlight the disappearance of other species as well. 

"It really worries me that there are many other species that may be undergoing similar declines, but they're not as big and people haven't noticed," Latty added. 

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Christmas beetles belong to the scarab family genus Anoplognathus. They are a crucial part of a complex ecosystem that sees them act as an important food source to other animals, such as lizards and birds. 

Species continuously discovered

Those saddened by the decrease in Christmas beetles can take solace in the fact that new species of the animal are constantly discovered. 

In 2019, researchers spotted a new species of beetle in the cave Soprador do Carvalho in Portugal that they called Iberoporus Pluto. The animal was found at the bottom of a clay pond.

Interestingly enough, the scientists were unable to find any other specimens apart from a single female. 

Meanwhile, in 2020, an undergraduate student majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology was performing fieldwork in South America in Venezuela, Suriname, and Guyana when she came across 18 new species of aquatic beetles. The specimens were from the genus Chasmogenus and included one beetle completely unknown to science.

Australia currently has the worst rate of mammal extinction in the world. If the Christmas beetle is indeed endangered it will join a long list of species whose survival is unclear including the black rhino and the cross river gorilla.