Spotlight on the darkling beetle. Review highlights threats to one of Britain’s most endangered species

Friday 23rd May 2014

The results of a new study carried out by Natural England in collaboration with Buglife, reveals that 6% of Britain’s darkling beetles and allied species have become extinct over the last one hundred years. 14% are now sufficiently endangered to join a new “red list” of species under greatest threat of extinction.

The ‘Review of the scarce and threatened beetles of Great Britain’ published today assesses the conservation status of darkling beetles and their allies, named after the black hardened forewings – known as elytra – common to many.  It classifies them as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered to determine ‘red list’ species under greatest threat of extinction.

While it is estimated that there are more than 20,000 species found worldwide, the review found that out of the 145 darkling beetles and allied species in the UK:

  • Eight (6%) are considered extinct in Britain
  • Twenty (14%) are considered either ‘Critically Endangered’ or ‘Vulnerable’, and are thus under some threat of becoming extinct in the near future.

The main cause for the decline is identified as loss of habitat such as veteran trees. Species under threat of extinction include the hairy fungus beetle, Mycetophagus populi, which feeds on fungi in old trees, and oil beetles, which rely on solitary bees to complete their life-cycles and so are dependent on wildflower-rich grassland – a habitat that has declined in quantity and quality due to intensive management of the countryside. Out of the ten species in the family, three are extinct in the UK and three are considered vulnerable. One of these is the Mediterranean Oil Beetle (Meloe mediterraneus) which was rediscovered on the South Devon coast in 2012 having vanished for over 100 years.

The review is the second to be published under the Species Status project, which is taking on the mantle of the Species Status Assessment project – initiated by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in 1999 – which ended in 2008 after producing 15 reports.  It seeks to continue the assessment of species in the UK to provide an up-to-date threat status of taxa or families, against standard criteria based on the internationally accepted guidelines developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).   Natural England is hoping that within five years, over 20,000 insect species will be reviewed as part of the Assessment project’s work.

Natural England’s Senior Entomologist, Jon Webb said: “The Darkling beetles are a diverse family, but many of those found in the UK are at the edge of their range. This review provides an invaluable indication of their current conservation status, enabling us to target resource at the red-list species under greatest threat of extinction in Britain.”

Andrew Whitehouse, South West Manager at Buglife said: “This review of darkling beetles provides essential up-to-date information upon which Buglife and others can prioritise our conservation work.  We know that many species of invertebrate have already become extinct in Britain; the new report will put a spotlight on those species that will become extinct over the next few decades unless we take positive action.”

The review can be found on Natural England’s publications catalogue.