Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Leaf beetle key - write, edit, plug

If you are a regular here, you'll know that I have a considerable interest in invertebrates and that they form a large proportion of the topics I write about (a glance at the 'tag cloud' in the right margin will confirm that). However, you might not know that I specialise a little more than that and that one of my areas of specialism is in the Chrysomelidae - the 'leaf beetles', which include the 'seed', 'reed', 'flea' and 'tortoise' beetles - and the two small closely related families, the Orsodacnidae and Megalopodidae. You may be familiar with these groups having a slightly different taxonomic arrangement, such as the Bruchinae being accorded full family status, but recent cladistic work (e.g. Reid, 1995) suggests otherwise.

A few years ago I became interested in this group as a voluntary species recorder for the UK's Biological Records Centre (BRC), and later as organiser of the related UK Recording Scheme. I soon found that, even with the excellent Atlas to British and Irish species having been published (Cox, 2007), I needed to collect a large number of individual journal articles in order to be able to reliably identify adults of the British chrysomelid fauna and that even then there were gaps. The last key covering all species was Joy (1932) which, although excellent, was unavoidably out of date (and hard to find affordably until the CD-ROM version appeared), while the update (Hodge & Jones 1995) was out of print. Grr. Although the BRC were extremely helpful, sending me copies of the articles I needed if they had access to them, it became clear that a lack of readily available user-friendly identification literature was a major barrier to expanding interest in this beetle group. Such a barrier needed to be overcome, especially as the Chrysomelidae includes many charismatic (shiny, colourful and metallic such as the green dock-beetle Gastrophysa viridula) species as well as a number of considerable economic importance (horticultural and agricultural pests) such as the unpopular Lily Beetle (Lilioceris lilii) and the notorious potato pest, the Colorado Beetle (Leptinotarsa decemlineata) although the latter is currently unable to colonise Britain due to low winter temperatures. There is also a conservation component as accurate identification is needed to provide useful distribution and monitoring data. For example, there are a number Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) and Red Data Book (RDB) species, such as the Pashford Pot Beetle Cryptocephalus exiguus which provides an (unfortunately) excellent case study of ineffective landscape-scale conservation, while the flea beetle Psylliodes luridipennis is a UK endemic known only from Lundy Island where it is threatened by over-grazing and invasive rhododendron.

Consequently, I made the decision that 'the book' would only appear if I wrote it, and so I began, aiming for an intermediate audience as I wanted to cover all British and Irish species, and many require dissection under a low-power microscope - not something for beginners maybe... I won't go into too much detail other than to say it was difficult - really, really difficult. The initial draft wasn't too bad to write, but - as expected - had many errors and omissions which were discovered during testing. However, many testers provided excellent tips and suggested changes - some extensive - which greatly improved the final version. The difficulty came where species were not covered reliably by existing literature, and this happened a lot while trying to write keys for the notoriously tricky flea beetle genera such as Longitarsus. I was aided in many cases by the excellent images (including genitalia) on the European Chrysomelidae website, but in the end there is no substitute for going to a museum or other institution, and consulting specimens in their reference collections such as those held in Winchester (Hampshire County Council), Oxford (Oxford Uni Museum of Natural History) and at the BENHS HQ near Reading. This is what sampling and collecting is for - it ain't decoration or 'train-spotting'!

A tray of beetles from the Oxford Uni MNH collections
So, after editing, re-editing, adding a few species that had been newly found in Britain, and making changes following taxonomic updates, the final version - complete with cover photo - went off to the publisher and then the printer. I was expecting it to be ready in mid to late November, but - much excitement - a courier delivered a box of my author's copies this morning - whoop! I think they are great (obviously) and a bargain at only £8.50 - available here - enjoy! All the many many hours of beetle-scrutiny was worth it - now, I seem to remember there's no general textbook covering this family...

Woo hoo! A box of brand new copies of my key to British and Irish leaf beetles.


Cox, M.L. (2007). Atlas of the Seed and Leaf Beetles of Britain and Ireland. Pisces, Newbury.

Hodge, P.J. & Jones, R.A. (1995). New British Beetles: Species not in Joy's Practical Handbook. BENHS, Reading.

Joy, N.H. (1932). A Practical Handbook of British Beetles (2 vols., 1976 reprint). Classey, Faringdon.

Reid, C.A.M. (1995). A cladistic analysis of subfamilial relationships in the Chrysomelidae sensu lato (Chrysomeloidea). In: J. Pakaluk & S.A. Ślipiński (eds.) Biology, Phylogeny, and Classification of Coleoptera: Papers Celebrating the 80th Birthday of Roy A. Crowson. Muzeum i Instytut Zoologii PAN, Warsaw, pp. 559-631.

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