Darwin’s long-lost beetle specimen found in museum dusty drawers


Millions of animals unknown to science languish in the world’s natural history collections. Just open a forgotten cupboard and you could find a new species.

A COUPLE of years ago, Stylianos Chatzimanolis received a box of insects in the post. The package came from London’s Natural History Museum: Chatzimanolis was updating the classification of an obscure group of beetles and – as taxonomists often do – had asked to borrow some specimens.

The beetles had been collected long ago but never formally described. They were just roughly classified as members of the same genus, Trigonopselaphus. But when Chatzimanolis opened the box, he could see that one of the 24 specimens clearly didn’t fit in. Long-bodied, with a segmented, sinuous abdomen, it was much larger than the others and had a distinctive, iridescent head.

The bird collection at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

As he read the beetle’s yellowed, handwritten label, he realised the specimen had been collected in 1832 in Argentina by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. Somehow it had never been described. It was stored away unnamed, then disappeared into the museum’s vast beetle collection. Finally, after 180 years in limbo, Chatzimanolis gave it a name: Darwinilus sedarisi, in honour of Darwin and the writer David Sedaris, whose audiobooks he listened to while writing the description in his office at the University of Tennessee.

The rediscovery of Darwin’s long-lost beetle was a remarkable stroke of fortune, but the wider story – of a new species being found in a museum collection – is surprisingly common. More than 1000 new beetle species are described each year from the Natural History Museum’s collection alone.

[Source: New Scientist]