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This beetle doesn’t have wings — and researchers say it’s a first of its kind

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As It Happens6:30This beetle doesn’t have wings — and researchers say it’s a first of its kind

When Vinicius Ferreira came across an unusual beetle in the small specimen collection at Sweden’s Lund University, he thought it was some sort of prank. 

“I thought it was a joke because I have never seen anything like that. So I said, ‘OK, I need to put this under the microscope to make sure that there’s nobody messing up with me,'” Ferreira told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

It didn’t have wings, which is nearly unheard of among beetles. And as Ferreira examined it further, he found it wasn’t a prank after all. 

It was an undiscovered species of beetle, and Ferreira set about learning more. His findings were published last week in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The beetle has been named Xenomorphon baranowskii, after the Xenomorphs from the movie Alien, and the man who first found the beetle, naturalist Richard Baranowski.

Baranowski first documented the beetle in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1991. It was found at an elevation of around 2,900 metres. But it wasn’t examined until now. 

“Xenomorph means a foreign shape or a weird shape. And this beetle here has a really weird shape and, remarkably, reminds me of an alien because of the ribbed back and the serrate antennae,” said Ferreira. 

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The insect’s lack of wings wasn’t the only surprising discovery. The beetle also had no elytra, which are a beetle’s tough, hardened forewings that make up a kind of shell on its back.

Through research, Ferreira and other members of his team determined the beetle had never before been recorded. 

Staying grounded

Ferreira says it isn’t completely unheard of for a beetle to have no wings. A condition called pedomorphosis — a phenomenon where female beetles retain some characteristics from their younger, larva form — can leave some female beetles without their wings. 

But he says this is the first recorded example of wingless male beetles. That’s a big deal for beetles searching for a mate.

“If you don’t have wings and elytra, you are diminishing your ability to go out there and find a mate. So how are you going to have a date and make more baby beetles without wings, right?” said Ferriera. 

The Xenomorphon baranowskii side by side with the fictional Xenomorph from the movie Alien.
Ferreira says the Xenomorphon baranowskii reminds him of the fictional creature from the Alien movies. (Submitted by Vinicius Ferreira)

Ferriera can’t say for certain why these beetles have gone wingless, but he does have some theories. He says the beetles in Oaxaca may have evolved to be wingless in order to deal with the high winds at the elevation Baranowski discovered them. 

“If you are a beetle that is only three millimeters long and you’re trying to fly, you can just be swept away,” said Ferriera. 

He also says it’s possible that these beetles are an example of pedomorphosis in males. 

Learning more

Professor Darryl Gwynne, who wasn’t involved in the research, says this is a novel discovery in the beetle world. 

“All adult beetles ever found, up until this study, possess elytra. It’s the very essence of beetleness,” said the emeritus professor of biology at the University of Toronto in an email. 

Gwynne says more information is needed about what evolutionary pressures led to the loss of the beetles’ elytra in Oaxaca.

That’s something Ferriera is hoping to explore. In fact, he says the discovery and subsequent research has left him with more questions than answers.

Although he hasn’t received funding to do additional research on the bug, he would like to visit the location the beetle was found.

“The follow up to this would be [to] hike back to the mountain where it was collected and find more of them to try to answer all of those questions,” said Ferriera.

“Everything is possible with beetles. And the discovery of this animal here is yet another evidence that, indeed, everything is possible with beetles.”

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