By Sharon Omahen
Joe McHugh stands in a murky creek examining a mossy
log. In a bright orange mushroom, he finds what he's
been hunting: a tiny beetle. It's not particularly
striking, but he's never seen another just like it. He
carefully places it into a vial of alcohol.
McHugh's not a Boy Scout working on his insect study
badge. He's the University of Georgia's coleopterist, a
He and his research team are working to identify
undescribed beetle species. Scientists figure beetle
species numbers at 3 million to 10 million.
Millions to identify
"So far, only about 365,000 beetle species have been
described," McHugh said. "To put that number into
perspective, one out of every five known species on
Earth is some type of beetle."
Each species has a particular role in the environment
as part of that ecosystem, he said. Eliminating just one
could produce effects on other animals and plants.
"Most insects you see in nature are part of a
balanced ecosystem. They all have a role," he said. "We
might not know what it is, but without this beetle or
that fly, a particular plant might disappear or some
other creature could suddenly become overabundant and
Since McHugh joined the UGA College of Agricultural
and Environmental Sciences faculty in 1995, he's
discovered and described 18 new beetle species. He found
three new genera, too, and was the first to describe the
immature stages of several species.
Adults and immatures don't look
"Immature beetles aren't simply small beetles," he
said. "They're grub-like larvae, just as caterpillars
are the immature forms of butterflies. The adults and
larvae of one beetle species can be totally different in
appearance, behavior and ecology. In some cases, you'd
never realize that the different forms represent the
McHugh and his team recently finished the first year
of a five-year, $724,000 National Science Foundation
Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy grant
Under the grant, the team is focusing on the
Cerylonid series, a group of little-known beetles. This
group of seven families includes ladybugs and their
"Although most ladybugs are predators of other
insects, some are (plant eaters), and many of their
closest relatives are ... fungus eaters," McHugh said.
"Fungi and the beetles that are associated with them are
often overlooked. But they, too, are valuable parts of a
McHugh and his team are writing descriptions and
keys, photographing the species and developing a Web
site to share the new information with scientists
Travelling and searching
The UGA team is studying thousands of specimens
borrowed from museums around the world. They're
collecting new samples from the field, too, for aspects
of the project that require data from different
developmental stages or from DNA.
They just returned from an expedition to Bolivia.
Over the next four years, they plan to go to Panama,
Chile, South Africa and Australia.
"There are representatives of the Cerylonid series
all over the world, with the exception of Antarctica,"
Besides describing the unknown species, the project
will help to train five new coleopterists.
"We're training new beetle experts," he said. "By the
time my students finish their Ph.D.'s, each one will be
the world authority on one of these poorly known
Naming them's a perk
When a systematist describes a new species, he gets
to name it. McHugh named one in honor of his high school
science mentor, another for his master's thesis advisor
and one in honor of his wife Roxanne. Because his wife
tolerated his "always being out bug hunting or working
in the lab," there's a Peruvian beetle now known as
"I think she was honored, even though it wasn't an
exceptionally flashy or colorful beetle," McHugh said.
"It was elegant and beautiful in its own way."