When asked about what could be learned about the Creator by studying nature, Haldane is supposed to have quipped, “well, dudeski’s got a major hard-on for beetles.” Or something like that. At somewhere better than 350,000 described species (about 40% of all animal species known), and surely many, many more out there waiting to be described, the diversity of beetles is truly astonishing.
Beyond sheer numerical diversity the ecological diversity of the group is impressive. Carnivores, herbivores, fungivores, scavengers and a robust guild of poo-eaters are all counted among their ranks. There are bioluminescent beetles, giant aquatic fish-eating beetles, beetles with elaborate “horns” and beetles that engage in chemical warfare against lazy Victorian schoolboys.
Also, they are really into kinky sex.
How, precisely, beetles got to be so damn diverse has puzzled scientists for since, well, not before time, surely. Flowering plants, climate change and poo have all been fingered as driving forces in beetle radiation. In the latest issue of Science a star-studded crew of established and erstwhile coleopterists once again take up this age-old question in a report titled “A Comprehensive Phylogeny of Beetles Reveals the Evolutionary Origins of a Superradiation.” In an effort to address the mechanisms underlying beetle “superradation!” the researchers assembled a massive cladogram (pictured at the top of this article) which nicely shows how awesome the beetles are compared to a profoundly lame group like, say, the mammals.
Their conclusion? Well, basically, beetles are so diverse because they have radiated into a wide range of ecological niches since the Jurassic while having a high lineage survival (read: low extinction) rate.
Also, they’re into kinky sex. And eating poo.
Well, that ought to be the end of that debate!
postscript: i kid because i care.