Endless Marvels: Australia's Striking Stag Beetles

‘Beetles rule the world – we humans just happened to live here.’ From its first page, this book is as much as tribute as it is a guide. Beetles make up around 25% of all known species on Earth. There are almost 25,000 described beetles in Australia alone. They can be as colourful as birds, and just as diverse. But because many beetles spend their life in the undergrowth, rarely seen by humans, their beauty and variety can easily go unappreciated.

In this unique book, the incredible diversity of one, small group of beetles is put on display. In Australia, there are 95 species in the family Lucanidae, commonly known as stag beetles. This book provides a coloured photograph of each, along with a description of their morphology, distribution, and ecology. As someone more familiar with birds than insects, I was amazed at how much these beetles vary. Their colours range from metallic gold to deep green, bright blue, purple and black. Some have huge mandibles curved upwards like antlers. Others have much smaller mandibles, shaped more like tiny pincers. Some live for weeks, others for years. Some fly, while others spend their entire life under a log.

A Guide to Stag Beetles of Australia is divided into three main parts. In Part I, the authors introduce the stag beetles, their ancestry, the history of stag beetle research, and other relevant scientific concepts. For anyone interested in the reasoning behind scientific classification, or why we use a ‘dead’ language to describe plants and animals, this section is particularly enjoyable. Part II provides a guide to each Australian stag beetle, organised by sub-family. Part III explains how to keep and collect stag beetles, and concludes with useful resources for beetle enthusiasts.

Besides being a field guide, this book is also a celebration of curiosity and wonder. As the authors confess, stag beetles are not particularly important for forestry or agriculture. Many are barely ever seen. Their appeal is in their evolutionary history, their role within a complex ecosystem, their rarity, their mysterious habits, and of course their incredible diversity. One of the most striking things when reading this book is how much we still don’t know. For some species, next to nothing is known about their biology. There are species that have never been seen since they were first described. As the authors state, ‘the study is endless and so is our marvel at life’.

Rainbow stag beetle ( Phalacrognathus muelleri ).  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rainbow stag beetle (Phalacrognathus muelleri). Image: Wikimedia Commons

This book is intended to be accessible to any nature lover, and it largely achieves this goal. Setting its scientific merit aside, this is the type of book that would have fascinated me as a child. The photographs are stunning, many showing the beetles in their natural habitat. Minor aspects of the layout could perhaps be improved, particularly the distinction between one species description and the next. The accurate description of species also requires specific terms, which are defined in a helpful glossary, but could still be daunting to some readers. Nonetheless, this book provides an engaging, well-structured guide to a somewhat enigmatic group of Australian animals.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… you are interested in finding and identifying beetles or simply curious about the creatures in Australia’s undergrowth.

A Guide to Stag Beetles of Australia is due out this month. Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 

Anne Aulsebrook

Anne is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, interested in conservation and the evolution of animal behaviour. One of her favourite books as a child was a field guide to Melbourne's spiders. She is currently researching how streetlights affect sleep in urban birds. 

You can find her on Twitter at @AnneAulsebrook.

Banner image courtesy of Donald Hobern / Wikimedia Commons.