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Beetle Species, Weirdly, Almost Never Go Extinct

The world is disproportionately filled with beetles—now, a new study suggests that’s because few species have ever been wiped out

It's a beetle invasion! These lady beetles (also known as lady bugs) are just one of Earth's family of beetles. (Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Some of the world’s smallest creatures are also be some of the toughest. Like, for instance, beetles. Many species of beetles, according to new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society Bbasically refuse to succumb to extinction.

There are a tremendous number of beetles on Earth. We’re talking huge numbers here—whereas about 250,000 species of plants have been described the world over, 350,000 beetle species have been documented—with likely many still undiscovered.

“There are more species of beetle than of any other type of animal,” writes Sid Perkins over at Science. Or perhaps you’ll get the full idea from this delightfully disgusting image from the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman: “If you stuck your hand into a bag full of one of every plant, fungi, animal and insect species on the planet (ew), you'd probably pull a beetle out.”

For this recent study, a team of researchers combed through the fossil record to examine beetles’ evolution, going as far back as the bugs’ supposed origin, 284 million years ago. They created a database of 5,553 beetle species from over 200 different locations and found through analysis that most subgroups alive today also exist in the fossil record. As Perkins reports, “During the past 300 million years, there have been 214 families of beetles, but only 35 of these have completely died out.”

So, what makes beetles so resistant to extinction? There are multiple factors, says one of the study’s lead authors, Dena Smith of the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. They are “extremely flexible and able to adapt to changing situations," she explained. Beetles are able to quickly split off into different species, are able to eat a wide array of food, and can more easily respond to climate fluctuations than some other organisms. And their ability to metamorphose means that “they can take advantage of very different types of habitats as a larva and then as an adult.”

But there’s more to be learned from how some beetle species have so far conquered the whole existence game—and Smith and her colleagues hope that more research is conducted on beetles and other extinction-resistant insects using the fossil record.

Meanwhile, scientists are sure to discover more beetles alive and thriving today. Last year, 98 new species were documented in India alone. Now imagine sticking your hand in a bag full of those. 

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