Some people are afraid of bugs. And then there’s Chris Marshall. He let a flesh-eating bot fly larvae grow in his arm as a graduate student.
“I was a celebrity for students at Cornell who watched it develop in my arm for six to eight weeks before it emerged,” he said, showing off a tray of the large and somewhat gruesome black creatures. “Won’t be doing that again.”
Marshall curates and manages Oregon State University’s arthropod collection, one of the largest collections of insects on the West Coast. Rows and rows of cabinets house some three million specimens from around the globe, ranging from drab moths to technicolor beetles, or what Marshall dubs “eye candy” or “Oh, my!” beetles for the reactions they elicit.
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An entomologist by training, Marshall has discovered several new species of insects, including rare ice crawlers that live on glaciers in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. But beetles are his true love — and why a curious photo recently sent him on an unusual search.
Sometimes, it turns out, you don’t have to delve into the densest rainforest or the deepest ocean trench to discover new species.
Sometimes, they’re right in your own backyard.
“This particular hunt began with a gentleman in Goldendale who had found rain beetles flying on his property and wanted to know what they were,” Marshall said, showing off the photo the man, Mike McBride, sent him via a mutual insect-loving friend.
Rain beetles are a distant relative of scarab beetles known by the family name Pleocomidae. They spend their whole lives, up to 15 years, underground, emerging only to mate during fall’s first big rains — thus, the name rain beetle.
As a result, there was a push in the 1970s to make them the Oregon state insect.
“But it was beaten out by a much more beautiful — to some people — insect, the Oregon swallowtail, which is still a great state insect. I’m not going to play favorites,” Marshall said with a laugh.
Rain beetles aren’t well known in Washington state, which was what initially grabbed Marshall’s attention when he received the picture from Goldendale. But the really odd thing was that the beetles in the photo were mating in the spring after the snow melted, as opposed to mating in the fall, like those well-known Oregon beetles.
Marshall wondered: Could they be a different species?
Marshall went out to the property in 2016 to find out, but he wasn’t able to locate the right specimens, which meant he had to wait an entire year for the beetles to emerge again. So on a cold March morning in 2017, he and a student assistant, Eric Eisel, headed back to Goldendale.
Marshall was met by McBride and his dog, Laker, who happens to have a thing for Pleocomidae.
“One of her things in the morning is: I’m going to look for beetles,” McBride said.
Wearing headlamps and carrying shovels, they followed Laker’s nose into the surrounding forest. Generally, rain beetles take flight before dawn, but on this morning, there were none to be seen, so they their eyes were trained on the ground, searching for burrows.
Just as the rising sun paints Mount Hood in pink light on the horizon, Marshall made his first discovery. Sinking the shovel into the ground to the side of a fresh hole, he pushed up the dirt and breaks it apart, finding a dark beetle about the size of a walnut shell and covered in fur like a teddy bear.
“That’s the female I think,” Marshall said, initially not finding the wings that mark the males. “Wait. Nope, that’s the male. Let’s try another one. Keep looking for the female.”
Marshall needs both male and female specimens to determine if they’re a new species. But while the males take flight in their search for mates, the females play coy, never fully emerging from the ground.
“All she ever does is put her abdomen up to the hole and releases a pheromone, and the males come in,” he said.
Tromping over lingering snow beds as they wandered through forests and fields, they ran through the process at every small hole. Shovel, dig, sift, repeat. To no avail.
As the morning dragged on, their hope vanished, and they decided to head back to McBride’s house.
Turns out, sometimes you’re better off not leaving the backyard at all.
Digging up several holes outside McBride’s house, they finally found their female. They also made another cool discovery: a number of larvae of different sizes, which will be instrumental in figuring out how long the beetle’s lifespan is.
Marshall took the beetles back to his lab and put them under a microscope next to the specimens from across the Gorge in Hood River.
“What we see when we look at them all in comparison: they’re very easy to tell apart,” he said. “The Hood River population is incredibly furry, whereas the Goldendale look very different, so the preponderance of evidence is becoming clear that these populations are really distinct.
“Totally, totally cool.”
It’s easy to think that we already know everything there is to know about most of the creatures around us, but Marshall says we really only know a lot about a few animals — mostly the big, beautiful ones. When it comes to many smaller organisms like rain beetles, we don’t even know simple things, such as their life-span or daily routine.
“If you go out into any part of Oregon and you start really probing and looking at the animals and plants that live there, you’ll realize that there’s a lot more that isn’t known,” he said. “Which means there’s always something that you can add.”
Marshall’s next step is to do a more thorough comparison with existing rain beetle specimens, including a DNA analysis. But he has high hopes, having learned that, to find something new, you just have to get up earlier, hike up higher or dig a little deeper.