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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Calodema No. 3

I recently received the third issue of "Calodema", a natural history journal edited by a friend of mine, Trevor Hawkeswood. Trevor is a prolific field biologist, whose main areas of interest are botany and entomology. "Calodema" is his journal "dedicated to promoting knowledge about the flora and fauna of Australia and the Pacific". Why "Calodema"? Because, as the cover photo shows, Calodema regale is a magnificent Australian jewel beetle. Jewel beetles (Buprestidae) are one of Trevor's special interests. Anyway, what's in the latest issue? A surprising range of topics. The issue opens with a complaint about the poor quality of citation in a paper on the host plants of an economically important Australian longicorn beetle, Agrianome spinicollis. Trevor's theme is that Australian biology journals are not edited with all due care. Returning to jewel beetles, the next article has some fascinating photos - of male jewel beetles fascinated by beer bottles. Biologists interested in animal behaviour have long known about "supernormal releasers": these are artificially enhanced versions of normal stimulators of behaviour. For example, a bird may prefer to sit on a larger, fake version of a normal egg, if it is the right colour and pattern. A supernormal stimulus can behaviourally "overstimulate" an animal. In the case discussed in Calodema, beer bottles discarded in the bush have just the right brown colour, and stippled pattern, to closely resemble the colour and pattern of females of the species. Males waste their time courting beer bottles instead of female beetles.

Dr Dewanand Makhan, of the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands, continues his descriptions of new beetles in the next article, with four new species from China. The new species are in the family Scydmaenidae, relatives of the more familiar rove beetles (Staphylinidae). Here is a fossil member of the family Scydmaenidae in amber. Dr Makhan has named one of the new species after Trevor Hawkeswood, "world renowned entomologist and environmental scientist from Australia". In another paper in this issue of Calodema, Dr Makhan continues his previous work on new species of water beetles (Hydrophilidae), from Suriname in South America in this case. Perhaps his Dutch hosts have a special connection to what used to be a Dutch colony.

Two further articles follow up on another of Trevor's themes: the way in which Australian natural history information becomes lost. In a sparsely populated country like Australia, when it comes to researching the flora and fauna "the harvest is rich, but the laborers are few", to use a biblical reference. This is made worse by the tendency for what knowledge is gleaned to be lost. Trevor refers to two books: "Bush Rambles" by AG Hamilton (1937) and "Our Dying Fauna" by AM Douglas (1980), which contain interesting Australian natural history information which has been largely forgotten or ignored. I am often amused by the contrast between England and Australia in this regard. In the "mother country", the fauna and flora are very well-known. The discovery of a new species there would be - almost - headline news. In Australia, the diversity overwhelms the naturalist. Often, he doesn't know where to begin. There is plenty to study, but resources in the form of guidebooks, for example, are relatively sparse. I remember being told, when I was studying entomology at the Australian National University, not to worry too much about exact identification of anything we collected because "it might be a new species". That's the wonder of Australia, and the problem for the student.

I am not quite sure what to make of the next two articles in the journal, accounts by Kelvyn Dunn of his experiences of being bitten by a wasp in Samoa and a spider in Australia. The accounts are certainly written with verve, even if they do contain sentences that begin "Under masculinity alignment, some social de-constructionists might argue ..." It is always enjoyable to read of others' bad experiences "in the jungle", and the toxicologist in me was intrigued by the accounts of the effects of the bites and stings. I even went out and bought a book on bites and stings to help follow what was going on. However the second of Kelvyn's articles raises doubts about whether he was really bitten by a white-tailed spider, as surmised in the first paper, or by something else. The white-tailed spider, Lampona cylindrata, acquired a sinister reputation in Australia a few years ago for the nasty, lingering symptoms associated with its bite. More recently, doubts have arisen about whether the white-tailed spider really deserves its reputation. I need to research the topic more before attempting to comment further on Mr Dunn's articles. They are a really good read, though. He sounds like a great bloke. (I recently met a young man who met and married a Russian girl from Moscow. What, I asked, did she like most about Australia, and what the least? I was told that she liked everything about Australia, except the spiders.)

Calodema No. 3 ends with a copy of my review of Calodema No. 2.

Julian

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