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Dec. 5, 2005

New Beetle Species Discovered at State Park

AUSTIN, Texas — Sometimes even the most well-trod ground can yield surprises. That was the case in May when a graduate student identified a species of stag beetle that is new to science while visiting Monahans Sandhills State Park.

The beetle, Nicagus occultus, is the first new species of the family Lucanidae to be described from the United States in more than six decades. Only two other species previously were known from the same genus — one found in the eastern and central United States and southern Canada — and one in Japan.

The Latin name occultus alludes to the fact the beetle remained undiscovered for so long, and also to its life history, presumed by scientists to play-out largely under the shifting sands in this remote region.

Aaron Smith, who holds a State Park Scientific Study Permit from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, noticed the insects at the top of a dune one evening while tagging along on a University of Texas undergraduate field trip.

“I wasn’t sure what they were until I put them under a ’scope,” said Smith, now a Ph.D. student in entomology at Texas A&M University.

Smith collected all of the beetles he saw and took them back to Nebraska, where he was then studying. His lab mate, Matt Paulson, specializes in stag beetles and immediately recognized the insects for what they were not: anything previously known to science.

The discovery prompted an 850-mile road trip the very next day, and after Paulson returned with still more specimens, he and Smith published a paper describing their find in the scientific journal Zootaxa. The article appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of the publication.

Smith said new beetles are being described all the time — more than 7,000 different species have been recorded in Texas to date — but to discover a new species in an avidly collected family, and in an area that has been intensely studied for decades, was something special.

“This is a popular group of beetles among beetle enthusiasts,” said Mike Quinn, a TPWD invertebrate biologist. “To find a new U.S. record among a popular group that many amateurs seek out is more unusual than finding an obscure beetle that very few people are interested in.”

Unlike the highly ornamented and often outrageously proportioned insects that typify stag beetles, the now-three species in the genus Nicagus are rather plain, the entomologists said.

“This is not a typical stag beetle,” said Ed Riley, an associate curator of the Texas A&M University insect collection who has frequently studied the Monahans area. “It’s an ugly, drab little beetle. But it’s a very special ugly, drab little beetle.”

Riley said Paulson and Smith exemplify the impact that even amateur entomologists can have when it comes to collecting and identifying rare insects. It’s rarely the lab-bound professor who makes such discoveries, he noted.

“I think it also reflects the problems you can have in doing a complete survey for a group as diverse as beetles,” Riley said. “I would say the Monahans Sandhills are probably getting to the point where we’d say it’s pretty well-known. There’s a continual need to sample in a lot of areas we think are well-sampled.”

Monahans Sandhills State Park comprises more than 3,800 acres in the heart of a 200-square mile dune field that stretches into southeastern New Mexico. The park, near Interstate Highway 20 west of Odessa, receives about 100,000 visitors a year, many of whom come to “sand surf” on the 70-foot-tall dunes or view wildlife.

Quinn, the TPWD entomologist, said that while this particular find was unusual, it’s not a huge surprise that it came from a state park.

“State parks, wildlife refuges and even military reservations often contain and protect hotspots of biological diversity and thus frequently are a source of undescribed species,” he said.

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AR 2005-12-05

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