Finding Something New
Cabras takes great care when she thinks she’s found something new. She signals to her teammates to stop moving. She doesn’t want any sudden movements to scare off a beetle. Then she tries to take a photograph of the scene. “I usually take photos of their food plant and habitat,” she says. This gives information to taxonomists as well as ecologists and conservationists.
When the beetles feel vibrations on tree leaves, they fall to the ground. They are very hard to find in dead leaves.
Many jewel weevils, for example, have ranges as tiny as one patch of forest. They eat only certain plants. It is vital, then, to conserve the plant if you hope to conserve the beetle.
A Fuller Picture
There’s another reason why Cabras tries to record the scene: “For some of my colleagues, this is the first time they are seeing the species alive,” she says. They have never seen their habitats or host plants.
This beetle would become important to Cabras’ research. She discovered a new species that looked similar.
Cabras uses a microscope to look at beetle specimens.
If possible, Cabras then collects a beetle as a sample so that it can be looked at more closely in the lab. “When you are in the laboratory, it’s the same thing—you have to photograph them and examine their anatomy,” she says. But the beetles may be as small as 5 millimeters (less than a quarter of an inch). It requires a lot of patience.
That’s not all. “It also requires special skills and years of training to do the lab work. You have to train your eyes to look into the microscope, but you also have to train your hands,” Cabras says. Beetles must be dissected, or cut apart, to see their internal structures. That requires good eyes and steady hands. Still, Cabras can’t always trust what she sees.
Jewel weevils are so named because they sparkle like gems. Their elytra, or wing covers, shimmer with colors from brilliant turquoise and shiny gold to pale orange and pink. The colors make them easy targets for predators like frogs, lizards, and birds. But weevils want to be seen. Their colors act as a warning: Don’t eat me. I taste bad.
This is called aposematism. The animal advertises to its predators that it is not worth eating. Aposematism can take the form of bright colors, sounds, odors, or other characteristics.
Cabras knew all about aposematism, but she didn’t realize how much it was going to affect her weevil research.
This leaf beetle looks like some jewel weevils.