The discovery of a new species of tiny beetle in Sharjah, measuring little more than the width of a credit card, could offer further insight into the biodiversity of the region, according to the scientist who confirmed its authenticity.
When Dr Sergei Tshernyshev, based in Siberia, received a small vial containing a tiny creature from the UAE, he first thought it was a mite, an arachnid often found as a parasite on larger animals.
However, on detailed analysis, this specimen – one of a number he was sent after they were collected in the Emirates – was found to be an all-new species of soft-winged flower beetle, a group of insects that Dr Tshernyshev has spent decades researching.
In a newly published study, Dr Tshernyshev has named the beetle Arabotroglops longantennatus in recognition of where it comes from and its long antennae.
Represented by just a single specimen found in Sharjah Desert Park by Dutch scientist Antonius van Harten, the adult male creature had a body that was a little more than 1mm long (excluding legs and tentacles).
Its discovery is the result of both scientific expertise and a dose of luck, because after spending most of their lives as larvae, adult male soft-winged flower beetles live for a fleeting period of just a week or so.
The beetle found in the UAE emerged from the pupa, the dormant cocoon stage during which the larva transforms into an adult, around March time.
Adult females of these beetles, which belong to the malachiid subfamily, may live a couple of weeks, spending some of this time looking for a place to lay their eggs.
“It’s tiny, it’s very small,” Dr Tshernyshev, who works at the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said.
“Adults, they live a short period of time. They only appear to find a sexual partner and lay eggs and they disappear. To collect malachiid beetles, you should know the time they emerge.
“Sometimes you can collect only females, because males have disappeared. It’s a pity because when you collect a female, you cannot identify the species.”
The new paper in the European Journal of Taxonomy also details two other new soft-wing flower beetle species – tonyattalus vanharteni (discovered at Sharjah Desert Park) and Tonycolates kovari (collected at Wadi Maidaq in Fujairah) – found by Mr Van Harten and named in his honour.
Members of one of these new species had previously been discovered, but had been assigned to a different species.
While there are many thousands of soft-winged flower beetle species worldwide, these are the first to be found in the UAE.
Many soft-winged flower beetle species live in tropical rain forests, with the larvae living under tree bark and preying upon other invertebrates. They are also found in, among other places, Europe, where they survive the chilly winter as a pupa.
The work highlights the way that much remains to be learned about the world’s insects because, even though about one million insect species have been identified, as many as 80 per cent remain undiscovered.
Dr Tshernyshev said identifying new species such as these beetles was important so that scientists understood the biodiversity that existed on the planet.
“You can compare the fauna with different groups in different regions, for example,” he said. “You can compare the character of the species from many, many millions of years ago with now.
"They could be used as markers of habitat protection, to protect some habitats that could be damaged by human activity. That’s why it’s necessary to study the fauna and study these small creatures and understand that they are also an element of ecosystems.”
The UAE offers particularly interesting habitats to study, he said, because although it contains desert areas, these are much closer to the sea than many deserts in other nations.
Mr Van Harten, who led a long-running initiative to catalogue the UAE’s arthropods – the category that includes insects and arachnids – collected the specimens identified by Dr Tshernyshev between 2006 and 2008.
It took more than a decade for the results to be published because Dr Tshernyshev, who is a fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, a learned society for the study of natural history, had to borrow specimens from a museum in London for comparison.