New Zealand Holey Relict

May 26th, 2011

Curator Jim Liebherr knew something was wrong that morning in April 2008 when he tried to identify a beetle specimen in the Lincoln University, New Zealand insect collection. "It felt like I was falling down a rabbit hole because the beetle was so unlike any covered in Sergio Roig's taxonomic monograph of broscine carabid beetles." In plain English, that means it was unlike any species of a predominantly southern hemisphere group of predatory ground beetles revised by the world's expert, Dr.  Sergio Roig, director of the IADIZA research institute in Mendoza, Argentina. Jim conferred with John Marris, curator of the Lincoln University Entomology Collection. The good news; the beetle represented a new genus that combines attributes unlike any other of these beetles worldwide. The bad news; there was only one specimen, and to do a proper description, specimens of both sexes are much preferable.

So when Jim Liebherr's sabbatic leave ended, he came home to Cornell University and immediately started planning to find the beetle in the wild. In December 2008, he combined forces with John Marris, Professor Emeritus Rowan Emberson of Lincoln University, and Pauline Syrett of New Zealand LandCare, and they tramped to the site of the lone specimen. Three more specimens were collected, of both sexes, and so the official description was prepared and recently released in electronic form in the Royal Entomological Society journal Systematic Entomology.

The beetle is important because its phylogenetic, i.e. evolutionary relationships indicate that the area it lives in in northwest Nelson, the South Island, New Zealand was once part of Gondwana, when New Zealand was united with Tasmania and the current coast of New South Wales, Australia. This relictual beetle comprises the sister group--that is the group of equal phylogenetic stature--to a diverse group of beetles that are distributed in Australia and in the southern South American areas of Patagonia and Validivia, Chile. So this beetle, or its ancestors, have been living in northwest Nelson for the past 85 million years or more while New Zealand rifted and drifted eastward from the Cretaceous-aged Gondwanan areas of Australia, South America and Antarctica. The authors also summarize information concerning numerous other insect groups with representatives in the northwest Nelson area that exhibit this Southern Gondwanan Biogeographic Pattern.

And how did we learn of this old, old beetle species in the first place? Dr. Eric Scott of Lincoln University was tramping near the beetle's only known locality when his party stopped for lunch. He collected a few beetles after eating, and put them into a vial in his pack. Shortly after lunch his wife Margaret suffered a terrible fall off the trail, breaking her arm. Dr. Scott carried her pack as well as his, and they both hiked out more than 10 km before she was taken to hospital. But, Dr. Scott got the beetle specimen to Lincoln University where a sabbatic visitor from Ithaca, New York saw it and determined that it was new based on a paper written by a researcher living and working in Mendoza, Argentina.

The beetle will not be named officially until the journal issue is printed in hard copy and deposited in libraries, but you can read about it now in: Liebherr, J.K., J.W.M. Marris, R.M. Emberson, P. Syrett & S. Roig-Juñent. 2011. Orthoglymma wangapeka, gen. n., sp. n. (Coleoptera: Carabidae): a newly discovered relict from the Buller Terrane, north-western South Island, New Zealand, corroborates a general pattern of Gondwanan endemism. Systematic Entomology.