What happens when a rare beetle comes back from the dead

Photo via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

MIAMI (AP) – A tiny beetle thought to have vanished from the planet decades ago and rediscovered in a patch of pine rockland near Zoo Miami became the latest disappearing insect added to the nation’s endangered species list Nov. 4.

First discovered in the 1930s near Barry University when much of South Florida was covered with pristine pineland, the Miami tiger beetle appeared to have been lost as development across the region wiped out their forest habitat. In a 2006 field guide, entomologists concluded the feisty little beetle was almost certainly gone. But in 2007, a butterfly collector stumbled across several near the zoo, a rare Lazarus moment that has since helped reignite efforts to save the last isolated tracts of pineland.

One of those tracts where the beetle was found, among the largest remaining pine rockland forests outside of Everglades National Park, is being targeted for a Walmart shopping center.

“That particular type of landscaping is vanishing and once it’s gone, you can’t get it back,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ken Warren said Nov. 4. “What it comes down to is the people of Florida are going to have to make difficult choices about what’s important.”

Federal wildlife managers are now considering designating critical habitat for the Miami tiger beetle, which would map out boundaries and measures to further protect the pineland, which must be maintained with regular fires that replicate South Florida’s natural wildfire season. A decision is expected by next Fall, Warren said.

While the beetle won’t stop Palm Beach County developer Peter Cummings from building the 88-acre strip mall, apartments and parking – since he unveiled plans, two butterflies found in rockland have also been listed – the protection means he will now have to also accommodate the beetle. A spokesman for Cummings said Nov. 4 he is continuing to work with federal officials, who are reviewing a proposed conservation plan.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the federal agency in 2011 to speed up a backlog of species waiting to be reviewed, applauded the listing, which the organization considered among the nation’s most urgent. But they also worry about delaying protections for the beetle’s habitat.

“The politics of who may be wanting to develop on that habitat should not come into play,” said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney and Florida director for the Center. “The leading cause of species extinction is habitat loss and that’s why it’s so important to protect habitat.”

Miami-Dade County has also proposed building a Disney-style theme park on adjacent rockland, but backed off those plans as criticism mounted over the Walmart. Earlier this year, architect Bernard Zyskovich said the county had put the project on hold until wildlife managers completed their study.

As for the tiger beettle, when collector Frank Young first discovered it in 1934, entomologists initially presumed it was a cousin of other local beetles. When the distinction was drawn years later, and Young reported the exact location of the find near Barry University, it was too late. Collectors returned, but were no longer able to find any.

In a 2006 field guide, entomologists concluded the beetle was probably lost, wiped out by development and collection over the decades – the tiger beetle with its iridescent green armor was among the most prized finds. When the butterfly collector came across a small population in South Miami-Dade, entomologists considered it at high risk because of the continued pressure on its nearly vanished habitat. A second small population of Miami tiger beetles, aggressive ant-eating insects about the size of a fingernail, was found last year about three miles away in another small chunk of pine rockland.

In an updated 2015 “Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of North America and Canada,” noted entomologist Barry Knisely and his colleagues reported the Miami species was “arguably the rarest and most endangered of the U.S. tiger beetles.”

Among entomologists, that’s a grim pronouncement. But for South Florida, it also meant that so little of the pine rockland remained that even the tiny beetle was having trouble finding a place to roam.

“We have roughly two percent of pine rockland remaining and what remains is highly fragmented,” said Emily Bauer, the lead biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have just two populations and they’re thought to be really small and isolated from each other.”

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