An inordinate fondness for Malaysian beetles

July 1, 2012 • 5:04 am

Lacking anything substantive to say, I am proffering pictures and videos today.  But they’re good ones. Here are some photographs of Malaysian beetles courtesy of Up Close with Nature, “Kurt aka OrionMystery’s Macro Photography” blog. Thanks to Alex Wild and Matthew Cobb for alerting me.

To a first order of approximation, all animals are insects, and all insects are beetles. Of the roughly one million described species of insects, anywhere between 30% and 40% are beetles, insects in the order Coleoptera.

Their abundance is the source of an anecdote that may be aprocryphal: someone once asked the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane what one could infer about the creator from the nature of His creation: “An inordinate fondness for beetles,” Haldane supposedly quipped.  A more reliable source, Haldane’s own book What is Life? The Layman’s View of Nature, says this:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature.

Wikiquotes also reports Steve Gould’s attempts to track down the quote:

  • Stephen Jay Gould also discussed the quote in the article “A Special Fondness for Beetles” in the January 1993 issue of Natural History (Issue 1, Volume 2), which was reprinted on p. 377 of his book Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History. Here he mentioned that Haldane had given a speech to the British Interplanetary Society in 1951, and that a report on the speech was included in Volume 10 of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society which says that “he concluded that the Creator, if he exists, has a special preference for beetles.” Gould also says that in a letter to the August 1992 issue of The Linnean, a friend of Haldane’s named Kenneth Kermack said that both he and his wife Doris remembered Haldane using the phrase “an inordinate fondness for beetles”:

    I have checked my memory with Doris, who also knew Haldane well, and what he actually said was: “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” J.B.S.H. himself had an inordinate fondness for the statement: he repeated it frequently. More often than not it had the addition: “God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” . . . Haldane was making a theological point: God is most likely to take trouble over reproducing his own image, and his 400,000 attempts at the perfect beetle contrast with his slipshod creation of man. When we meet the Almighty face to face he will resemble a beetle (or a star) and not Dr. Carey [the Archbishop of Canterbury].”

But on to the creatures themselves; indented captions are from “Kurt’s” website:

Here are two photos of the “trilobite beetle,” something I didn’t know existed (they seem to be in the genus Duliticola, though this one wasn’t identified).

Amazing Violin Beetle from Maliau Basin

The name is quite appropriate, and this is one of five species in the genus Mormolyce:

Leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae, Hispinae subfamily) with two parasitoid wasps on it:

Handsome male click beetle, Callirhipidae, Elateridae

Look at those splendid antennae!

A rove beetle:

A newly emerged golden tortoise beetle(?) [JAC: probably not, because that species is found only in North America]

Rhinoceros beetle:

Finally, sex and death.

Mating pair of tortoise beetle, Laccoptera sp. (?). More bugs porn here.

Nature red in tarsus and mandible—a beetle about to meet its maker:

About two million species have been formally described, which means that up to 20% of all described species are beetles.  But that’s only a fraction of all species that exist on Earth, since most haven’t been found and scientifically described. How many species really exist on our planet? Go here for one answer.

There are lots of other pictures at Kurt’s site.  And Matthew has called my attention to an awesome artist who makes beetles and other insects out of glass: “Vetropod” who has an e-shop at Etsy. For around $60-$200 you could make some entomologist very happy at Christmas.  Here are two of Vetropod’s items: a rhinoceros beetle and a trilobite beetle. Go have a look.

41 thoughts on “An inordinate fondness for Malaysian beetles

  1. Wow!
    Liar Gish and others would allow that for micro-evoluton. A
    nd Haldane notes His fondness for beetles.
    WEIT,I hope you approve of my calling the teleonomic argument theCoyne-Mayr-Lamberth argument. Mayr uses the term teleonomy as against teleology, and lambastes the latter.
    I use the present tense for dead people as far as their thinking is still “alive.”

  2. Beautiful pictures!
    I get slightly provoked by the claim that beetles are the most species-rich group of organisms, though. In countries where insects have been studied relatively well (e.g. the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany) there are more species of Hymenoptera and Diptera than there are beetles. Since no tropical country is properly surveyed for these taxa the same might be the case for the world fauna as well.

    1. Is the world as a whole any better studied for beetles?

      I’ve been hearing from hymenopterists for decades that their critters probably outnumber beetles, especially they seem to think there are huge numbers of undescribed parasitic wasps. They may be right, but are they even gaining on the beetle people? That is, are they describing new species faster than the coleopterists are?

      1. Since the majority of species are undescribed, we basically don’t know. Every year, hundreds of beetle species are being described; the same is true for flies and wasps. My hunch that flies and wasps have more real species than the beetles is based on
        1) A longer history of sound beetle taxonomy (since the 1700s, whereas many groups of flies have only been studied properly for about a century)
        2) More attention – there have always been many more amateur and semi-professional collectors who work on beetles, and
        3) The regularity with which I discover new species when I examine collections from tropical countries. In two months in Uganda I collected about 40 species, of which maybe 4 or 5 were previously known to science. The same is maybe true for beetle people, though.

        The exercise of comparing orders in species richness is, however, ultimately pointless. In Nature there are no orders, only clades and species.

        1. You work on some family of flies, I gather? If up to 90% of your group is undescribed, there is room for growth!

          If the orders are “natural” then aren’t they also clades? That’s the goal. Is there reason to think Coleoptera, for example, is not a clade? Of course, whether Coleoptera and Diptera are comparable clades is an open question.

  3. Where did Haldane get his numbers for vertebrate species? 9000 for birds isn’t bad (though there has been some splitting since then). But 10,000 mammals? That’s too many by at least a factor of 2, and I can’t think there’s been that great a lumping since Haldane’s time.

    1. And is creature of the month for me. I’ve never seen anything remotely like that and from the photos I’d never have guessed it’s a beetle.

      1. Au contraire, mon cher professeur:

        It is I who think you, for the book you wrote which helped me to complete the long journey from Yuckism (oops, meant to type YECism) to sanity, rationality, and understanding; for this blog and both its biology and its generous servings of “this is why religion is ridiculous;” and for the large number of intelligent people who respond to your posts, and from whom I continue to learn a lot.

          1. We all weep and gnash teeth before the Almighty Non-existent Editor.

            Great comic btw!

    1. I don’t know, lord whoever made a whale of a lot of ’em, both in numbers and biomass. They’re everywhere I go.

  4. Prof. Coyne, what do you suppose is the explanation behind the unusually high diversity of the beetles compared to other order of insects?

    1. I could make up some hypotheses (we evolutionists are good at that), but in truth I really don’t know. I’m sure others more qualified than I have speculation about this, but I can’t even refer you to them.


  5. Prof. Coyne, what do you guess is the explanation behind the unusually high diversity of beetles compared to other orders of insects?

    1. Oops, sorry for the double-post. The commenter above is me, which should be obvious. There was some complication with wordpress and gravatar.

      1. I get that as well. I’m not sure that the problems experienced are worth the benefit of a fixed avatar.

  6. Thank you for this. I love bugs and dabble in macro photography myself. The linked website includes tips for macro shooting as well as some gorgeous photographs. Good stuff!

    1. Hmmm … my macro photography interests are more to do with lumps of rock. I see from the “beetle” site that he uses a twin flash set up, with a complex and bulky-looking rig for mounting it to the camera. I’ve been considering getting a ring flash or ring-LED lamp that will lens mount (I have plate gel filters too, also for lens mounting, so I think ultimately this will lower my kit weight. Rocks are not generally self-propelled, so I don’t need high shutter speeds.
      Do you have experience with ring flashes versus this sort of “studio” level of lighting? Or would I end up wasting my money?

  7. an awesome artist who makes beetles and other insects out of glass
    I am reminded fothe Blaschka marine invertebrates.

  8. There is a very good argument that nematodes are the most diverse of multicellular organisms. Consider it likely that every non-nematode multicellular organism may well have a species-specific species of parasitic nematode. Add to that the number of more generalized parasitic nematodes, and the free living species. Maybe some nematodes have specifies specific parasitic nematodes as well. It has been said that if you removed all organisms from earth, but left all the nematodes in the position where you found them, that there would be a ghostly 3D picture of all the removed organisms.

    1. Yeah, the typical arthropod line strikes me more accurate as “Of all the species we have identified, arthropods make up the largest portion” (or something along those lines).

  9. Very timely post, since I got inspired a few hours ago to hunt down a fair comparison between the number of eukaryote and prokaryote species, mainly in the ecological sense. There could be an interesting explanation, as the linked paper by Mora et al indicates that prokaryote ecological species diversity is lower than eukaryotes rather than the reverse. It revolves around Lane’s and Valentine’s work on eukaryote respectively archaean ecologies.

    The question was spawned by the work on protein fold phylogenetic/fold nodes clock work (say, “The evolution and functional repertoire of translation proteins following the origin of life” Goldman et al, Biol Dir 2010; and others like that) and the metabolic phylogeny work (eg “The Emergence and Early Evolution of biological Carbon Fixation”, Braakman et al, PLoS Comp Bio 2012).

    The consistency in between these areas may promise to set up to what looks to me like “a standard biological history” in the same way that “standard cosmology” sets up a cosmological timeline. The RNA/protein world stands for ~ 20 % of the fold clock proxy, the DNA LUCA for another ~ 20 %, and the then observably later domain diversification for the rest. High score for interest on a scale relevant for astrobiology.

    The metabolic paper have a consistent metabolic LUCA before domain diversification solely based on the assumption that CO2 autotrophy may have been necessary first. And it looks like diversification is prompted by oxygenation of the atmosphere. Energy minimizing ATP use is uncovered as an important recurring constraint, especially in anaerobic archaea.

    They point to David Valentine’s review of Archaea in terms of chronic energy stress. In short, mainly by evolving a low permeability membrane (say, lowring futile ion cycling) and a short genome conforming to highly specialized metabolic pathways, energy usage is optimized. The 6 known physiological/metabolic groups obey that, as well as many specific predictions.

    More than that, Valentine notes that Archaea and Bacteria are mostly well separated in adaption on an axis of pH and temperature that ion permeability sets up. Bacteria are enjoying a high adaptability, high metabolic diversification, high energy environment life. Consequently there are fewer species of Archaea at an ~ 1/20 ratio.

    This reminded me of Nick Lane’s energy theory on Eukarya, who enjoys ~ 10^5 times as high energy density as prokaryotes due to having specialized aerobic mitochondria. That allows for larger protein turnaround, which allows for larger genomes. I am not sure how ecological differences is manifested and maintaned, but certainly complex multicellular eukaryotes enjoy their own peculiar ecologies.

    And in an interesting reconnect with Valentine, Lane have a popular article out that remarks that CO2/H2 autotrophy in alkaline hydrothermal vent may be the only reasonable environment for early leaky cells. (New Scientist’s latest number, ouch!)

    Sure enough, while it isn’t all too helpful in establishing a wholesome comparison, the linked paper by Mora et al indicates a lower prokaryote bound at an ~ 1/1000 ratio to eukaryotes.

    It is an ecological measure, “is not so much a statement about the diversity of prokaryotes as it is a statement about what a species means in this group.” And it is partly due to ecological conditions, as it is “… important to note that for prokaryotes, the species concept tolerates a much higher degree of genetic dissimilarity than in most eukaryotes [26],[27]; additionally, due to horizontal gene transfers among phylogenetic clades, species take longer to isolate in prokaryotes than in eukaryotes, …”.

    YMMV, and I just wanted to check if energy conditions from low energy density (Archaea) over medium (Bacteria) to high (Eukarya) correlated with ecology and its diversity, at least after the oxygenation of the atmosphere. It does, and maybe it illuminates the proposed timeline.

    I don’t propose to claim that this observation necessarily answers diversity on the domain scale. But it is an alluring observation as you try to assimilate this stuff.

    1. Well. I thought the comment looked long as I was reviewing it, but didn’t realize it was so long. My apologies.

    2. Lane’s argument for CO2/H2 autotrophy being based on the requirement for high energy provided for early leaky cells, analogous to Valentine’s observations, that is.

    1. It may be an adult female, since Wikipedia says that the genus belongs to Lycidae, and lycid females are larviform.

      1. There are some insect where the females are wingless & the males winged aren’t there? – I wonder how that works genetically?

  10. “To a first order of approximation, all animals are insects…”

    By species number maybe, maybe not. By population nematodes win, and insects aren’t even close.

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