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Insect classification and diversity

Lesson Plan

March 15, 2002 Posted: 12:25 PM EST (1725 GMT)
One of every four animal species is a beetle. They vary in shape and size, but even the scariest looking beetle won't bite. Their appetite usually consists of tree bark, leaves or rotting wood.  

By Michael McManus
CNN Student News

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- "The creator must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles."

Dr. David Furth recalls his favorite quote as he walks into a room filled with the hard-shelled insects. Some are the size of a pin head, others the size of a human hand.

In a research lab tucked away on the third floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., Furth says that this is where it all happens. "Where what happens?" one would be forced to ask. He simply responds, "This is where we classify."

Furth is the Insect Classification Manager at the Smithsonian. Though he oversees many aspects of collecting and classifying bugs, his favorite is the beetle. "They are beautiful. Their bodies are tailor made to their lifestyle."

A look at beetles

"This is a Predatory Ground Beetle," says Furth, as he points to what looks like a leaf that's just fallen from a New England oak tree in October. "He crawls up under the bark of a tree." Furth explains that this beetle is also known as the "ghost beetle" for its ability to virtually disappear from eyesight, one of the many attributes Furth looks at before classifying an insect.

CNN Student News' Michael McManus finds out how bugs are classified

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What's it like to classify insects? "It's a very difficult process," Furth says.

Think of your family tree. It's the easiest way to describe what classifying a species is all about. Look at all the cousins, great uncles, aunts and grandparents related to you. Although your relatives share the same blood and may look a little like you, you are a unique individual.

The same goes for insects -- all insects fall under the animal kingdom. After kingdoms, scientists classify species by phylum.

In the case of beetles, the phylum is arthropods. After phylum comes class. Beetles fall under the insect class, but it gets even more specific. There are thirty-one orders under insects. Beetles are one order, flies another, butterflies in yet another, and so on. It's truly a process of elimination, and the scientific term for this process is "taxonomy."

Scientists are very organized when classifying and follow a strict set of rules and standards as they do so. All species are given a Latin name, which is rarely used by the general public. The variables are recorded in such a way so that scientists around the world can share and trade information with one another.

black beetle
The 4-inch long black beetle with the long sharp horns is not harmful to humans.  

For example, when asked about the 4-inch-long black beetle with the long sharp horns adorning each side of its head, Furth explains that the horns would be one of many things a scientist would examine before classifying the insect. Other traits include color, shape, body style, behavior and the food they consume.

Furth says that the research doesn't stop on the outside of the specimen. "We even dissect insects to find out what's on the inside."

Furth explains that the more information known about a particular insect, the better. "Certain parts of the country have outbreaks where the gypsy moths come and eat every tree leaf in sight. It can be devastating to forests and landscape."

With all the research and classification researchers have done on gypsy moths, Furth says, the insect can be traced back to where it came from, so that it's natural enemies can be determined, and a way to stop the outbreaks can be discovered.

Looking through the collection of beetles, the dates of classification jump out at you -- 1976, 1922, even 1878. There is so much history behind each expedition and capture. Furth says that it's an incredibly long and laborious process that's constantly changing and evolving. By the size of the collection under the Smithsonian roof, it's hard to disagree.

Michael McManus is an anchor for CNN Student News.

• Department of Entomology, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
• David G. Furth, Collections Management Unit
• Coleopterists Society

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Updated September 21, 2002

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