Ants dominate terrestrial environments, overpowering other insects and keeping their populations in check. Yet, ant colonies are packed full of resources, climatically-controlled, and devoid of other predators. Their very existence offers a challenge to other insects: break the ants' chemical code of nestmate recognition, and gain unlimited access to the ant’s bounty....
A few creatures have evolved the means to do this: some butterflies, bugs, crickets and flies. But one group of insects is exceptionally good at it: a group of beetles called PSELAPHINAE. Pronounced “SEH-LAH-FIN-EE”, this is a ginormous subfamily of tiny, exsquisite beetles. Most are just a few mm long. But under a microscope, they display a myriad of different, intricate forms...
9000 Pselaphinae species are known to science—as many as ALL bird species combined—and still TENS OF THOUSANDS more await discovery. Most are found in tropical forests, and many are found ONLY inside ant nests. Other insects would be ripped to shreds, but these beetles walk freely amongst the worker ants, feeding on ant eggs and larvae. Some are even carried around and fed by the ants themselves.
They are remarkable...
but few people know about these fascinating beetles. Their amazing lifestyles and evolutionary relationships are unexplored. I am asking for your help in breaking new ground, in constructing the EVOLUTIONARY TREE OF LIFE, and finding NEW SPECIES of this hugely diverse and enigmatic group of organisms.
Why this matters
By outsmarting ants, these bizarre beetles raise fascinating questions about how species interact and evolve in nature:
how do they deceive the ants, when other insects are killed and dismembered so readily?
how did they evolve this lifestyle? What steps were involved in its formation?
why are there SO MANY SPECIES of Pselaphinae?! Could it be related to the success of ants?
This is virgin biological terrain. To answer these fundamental questions, we need to know WHEN these beetles evolved. Did they diversify with ants, around 100 Million Years Ago? By sequencing DNA from as many species as possible—those that live with ants, and those that don't—we can build a tree of their relationships, and calibrate the timing of Pselaphinae evolution using MOLECULAR CLOCKS.
We also need to know HOW MANY TIMES they have evolved to exploit ants. It probably happened repeatedly during their evolution—not just once. Using the tree, we can map out evolutionary events when species moved from a free-living to an ant-exploiting existence. We can then begin to pinpoint changes in body form, body chemistry, behaviour and ecology leading up to these events, which mayhave predisposed these beetles to become successful ant-exploiters.
You support will go towards:
COLLECTING SPECIMENS IN PERU: Pselaphinae is a huge group of beetles. 10 years ago, I began collecting them just for this project. I visited Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Europe and North America, picking beetles from sifted leaf litter or ant nests. I dropped them into 100% ethanol to preserve their DNA, and accumulated a freezer-full. But the opportunity to collect crucial species, mostly from South America, never arose. They include some of the bizarrest ant-exploiters known, and are key pieces in this puzzle. Your donations will allow me to hunt these elusive creatures in SATIPO PROVINCE in the Peruvian Amazon. New, previously undiscovered species will also no doubt be found.
DNA SEQUENCING TO CONSTRUCT THE PSELAPHINAE TREE OF LIFE: Tantalising patterns have emerged from preliminary data, based on sequences of a single gene for ~50 scattered species of Pselaphines. But profound insights into how these fantastic creatures evolved will only come from sequencing multiple genes from many more species, spanning all major groups of Pselaphines. Your support would provide me with the means to create a highly detailed and reliable picture of the Pselaphinae Tree of Life. Money raised above the $4000 goal will go towards sequencing more genes and species than are currently in the pipeline.
Most importantly, constructing and publishing the Pselaphinae Tree of Life will mark the first step in understanding how these incredible creatures have evolved to outsmart ants. It will offer a starting point for future experimental work on the mechanisms these beetles employ to trick the ants. Furthermore, without a doubt, previously undiscovered and fascinating species of Pselaphinae will be found in Peru. These beetles will be given formal scientific names—a task donors are encouraged to assist me with—resulting in further publications in peer-reviewed journals.
Joe Parker is an entomologist at Columbia University, New York. Originally from the UK, he's been obessed with insects for practically his entire life. He began focusing on Pselaphinae after collecting his first specimen, aged 16 in a swamp near his hometown of Swansea, Wales. Feeling that these beetles were in some way special, he began working on deciphering their evolutionary relationships as an undergraduate at Imperial College, London, escaping between lectures to the vast beetle collection at the nearby British Natural History Museum. He graduated from Imperial top of his year in the life sciences, and was voted Best Biology Student of the Year (nationwide) at the 2001 SET AWARDS. Inspired by the diversity of Pselaphinae body forms, he pursued a doctorate at Cambridge University, UK, on the genetic mechanisms controlling insect body size and shape. His doctoral work (published HERE) earned him the 2005 Royal Entomological Society ALFRED RUSSELL WALLACE AWARD for major contributions to entomology. He moved to Columbia University as a Wellcome Trust independent research fellow, where he continues to work on the molecular genetic control of insect growth. Throughout his academic carreer, he has continued his work with Pselaphines, travelling globally to collect species for his tree of life project. He likes nothing better than sticking his head inside an ant colony, looking for tiny beetles.
Grim news from one of the world's largest collections of Pselaphinae and other insects.
The Field Museum in Chicago is facing major layoffs, with cuts to its research and collections staff.
This is one of the world's great museums. The proposed cuts spell disastrous setbacks not just for the museum, but for global biodiversity research. The Field Museum is an internationally recognised leader in this area.
I have had the pleasure of working in the amazing collections there, and can't emphasise enough how important it is that they remain in active research use.
Find out more, and (for the sake of Pselaphinae!) please sign the petition to protect scientific research at the Field Museum, here:
Amazingly, this project has reached the minimum to secure funding in just under 6 days. A massive THANK YOU to everyone who has so far donated. I am hugely grateful to each and every one of you for making this happen.
As detailed in the blurb above, further donations beyond this minimum will be put towards DNA sequencing costs, which can be extensive for projects of this scope and size. If you are reading this, and interested in lending your support to this project, you are strongly encouraged to do so!!
For love of beetles, please donate a few $$$ to get this research funded!
You will be graciously thanked, and your contribution will be noted on the project facebook page.
Frequent news about the project, including remarkable specimen finds, photographs from the collecting trip, and outcomes of data analyses. I would love feedback from donors too... get involved! Plus all of the above.
A digital photo album of pictures from the field. Plus all of the above.
Eye candy: a glossy 8x10 print of enigmatic pselaphine beetles taken during the course of this project. Images may be stunning field shots, high resolution light microscope images, or ultra-close up scanning electron micrographs. All images will reveal the exquisite beauty of these minute organisms which is all but invisible to the naked eye. Plus all of the above.
"Joe, what's this bug?" — a life-long offer of my insect identification services (not limited to beetles). Plus all of the above.
A full, published acknowledgement for contributing your support to this project in any eventual research articles. Plus all of the above.
A small collection of mounted Pselaphinae specimens of different species, complete with locality data, in a collection box. Plus all of the above.
The opportunity to choose a name for a newly discovered species of Pselaphinae beetle. The name must be based on the beetle's characteristics, behaviour, habitat, or geographic origin. Plus all of the above.
• Limited Reward (2 of 2 remaining)
A new species of Pselaphinae beetle named in your or a loved one's honor. Plus all of the above.