Deal or no deal
by Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections
In a previous article on this blog I reported the discovery, in an insect collection, of the 21st British specimen of the ‘Regionally Extinct’ dung beetle Melinopterus punctatosulcatus. And since then, I’ve been on the hunt for more…
Heading out to numerous other museum collections I discovered more specimens, all collected in the same locality – Deal in Kent. In Ipswich Museum there are six, collected by C. Morley in 1896; there are two in the Natural History Museum, London, collected by G.C. Champion; and in the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge there are two collected by G.C. Hall in 1883.
But the earliest and most recent finds are both in the National Museum of Scotland – one from May 1871, in the G.R. Waterhouse collection, and one from 1923, in the T. Hudson-Beare collection. So now we know of 42 specimens of this beetle with data and we know that the species occurred at Deal for about 50 years. But why are there no records after this time?
The Deal sandhills in Kent were famous for their insects, but even as long ago as 1900 entomologists* were discussing the negative impact of “summer camping-out stations and the modern craze for the ‘Royal and Ancient Game of Golf'” on beetles and butterflies in the area.
Today, most of the sandhills are gone and there are no grazing animals other than a few rabbits. Most of the surrounding land is either developed as a golf course or under agricultural management. So, is the possible local extinction of this dung beetle due to habitat loss and a lack of dung?
To try and answer this question, naturally I went looking for poop in Deal. In a field in Sandwich Bay I could hear sheep bleating in the distance, although poo was scarce. Eventually I found a few old plops and inside were ten Calamosternus granarius, a small dung beetle. This was good, but my main target was Melinopterus punctatosulcatus.
I probed the poop further. To my delight, crowded in the remaining squishy bit were four other species. On close inspection, one of these was hairy, so a male, and much darker than its close relatives. It fitted perfectly with my expectations for Melinopterus punctatosulcatus after seeing so many examples in museum collections. Success! This beetle, misidentified in museum collections for so long, and not seen since the 1920s in Deal, is indeed hanging on in Kent.
Disappointingly, after a further few days of searching, only a handful more specimens were seen. This suggests that either the species exists at low population levels, or that it was it was not the peak emergence period when I was there. Nonetheless, a species not recorded anywhere in the UK for over 70 years is actually still here.
Now hopefully we can encourage local land owners to help conserve this all-important dung fauna and flora.
* Walker, J.J. 1900. The Coleoptera and Hemiptera of the Deal Sandhill. Entomologist Monthly Magazine 36: 94-101.