by Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections
Many years ago, when re-identifying dung beetles in the collections of the British Entomological and Natural History Society, I found a specimen that I didn’t immediately recognise. So I borrowed it, and after a few hours of checking the European literature back in Oxford, I realised that I’d found a beetle that had not been recorded anywhere in Britain before.
The dung beetle in question was Melinopterus punctatosulcatus, a species widely distributed across Europe but until this discovery unknown in Britain, despite its presence in the BENHS collection. This is because it had been misidentified as a different species: the beetle superficially looks like two closely-related species, and so had been overlooked by beetle collectors for over a hundred years.
Since that initial specimen, I have scoured numerous UK museum collections and to date have found a total of just 20 specimens, distributed across the World Museum in Liverpool, the National Museum Wales in Cardiff, and here in the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. All these specimens are from Deal, Kent and were caught between 1891 and 1910.
The last known record is of a single specimen from Ryarsh, Kent collected in 1938, which just happens to be the first specimen I found some 20 years ago in the BENHS collection.
But this week, the 21st known specimen was discovered in our collections by Mary-Emma, a placement student who is with us from the University of Reading. She uncovered the beetle during the re-curation and identification of a collection made by A. J. Chitty. Thankfully the specimen was a male, so we were able to confirm the identification using the genitalia – one of the best ways of determining a species.
It seems that Mr Chitty had a knack for finding this particular species of dung beetle, since 14 of all the known specimens were caught by him at Deal. It’s just a shame that he didn’t realise his amazing discovery at the time.
In the recent Conservation Status Review of dung beetles, Melinopterus punctatosulcatus was designated as Regionally Extinct in the UK because there have been no known sightings since that one in 1938. So this species possibly went extinct in Britain before we even realised that it was here. And were it not for museum collections we may never have known it once lived in Britain at all.