Australia has an incredible Christmas beetle, but it's gone AWOL
When it comes to Australian animals, the first that come to mind are generally kangaroos, koalas and maybe a platypus or a killer crocodile. However, there’s a tiny, iridescent group of beetles that turn up every Christmas and hold a special place in the hearts of people Down Under. Yes, they’re known as Christmas beetles.
The Christmas beetle isn’t one but 36 species of large insects from the genus Anoplognathus. Almost all are native to Australia, and for years they seem to have been diminishing in numbers.
Now, there’s a nationwide science citizen project under way to, hopefully, find out just why these majestic, shiny and quintessentially Aussie Christmas features have become scarce.
Australians are being asked to take part in the first-ever Christmas beetle count, a citizen-science project from Invertebrates Australia and the University of Sydney, in an effort to find out just what’s going on with these beloved festive-season insects. Residents are asked to photograph and submit images to iNaturalist, so biologists can finally work out what is happening with this treasured but increasingly scarce group of animals.
The scientists also hope that it’ll help them identify if any unsighted beetles might be close to extinction.
While the beetles are known for their dazzling aesthetics, they also play a vital ecological role, providing protein-rich food for mammals, birds and reptiles during crucial breeding seasons over the Australian summer.
Their larvae also tunnel through ground cover, aerating soil and recycling decomposing organic matter.
The project has so far been incredibly well received, with more than 8,000 sightings submitted by more than 4,000 people across Australia. Among these have been four very rare species, which have not been sighted for decades.
One species, A. vietor, was sighted some 300 km (186 miles) from the only other known recorded evidence of its species, suggesting that this elusive beetle might not be as rare as previously thought.
There might be more good news on the horizon, too. While Australians have been asking scientists for years if these beetles were gone for good, and wondering if climate change was playing a hand in their potential demise, things are looking up. There have already been more than double the ‘research grade’ sightings of beetles this year compared to 2022.
However, researchers are cautiously optimistic, knowing that this increase in sightings could also be due to the citizen-science project. Several more years of data will be required before a better picture of the state of these fabulous iconic Aussie residents are known.