A Montana State University doctoral candidate published a paper today describing and naming a new subfamily and three new species of beetle endemic to Mexico.

In biological classification, the new beetles belong to the same group as fireflies, and their identification as beetles of this group was facilitated by comparative anatomy and genetic studies performed at MSU.

Vinicius Ferreira studies the evolution of beetles, mainly of the family Lycidae, commonly known as net-winged beetles. Originally from Brazil, Ferreira now works in MSU’s Marsh Laboratory with mentor Michael Ivie, an associate professor of entomology in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture. To aid in his doctoral research, Ferreira received beetle specimens from scientific collections all over the world, including collections from the Smithsonian Institution and the Canadian National Collection.

One day while examining specimens, Ferreira noticed one that appeared different from the others. Unable to satisfactorily place the specimen in any known family of beetles, he contacted other members of the scientific community to see if they could help.

“We rely on material that has been collected by colleagues all over the world, and it’s a pretty tight community,” said Ferreira. “I started reaching out to people asking if they’d ever seen this beetle before, and nobody could identify it.”

Working with Oliver Keller, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Florida who completed his Ph.D. this spring, and Keller’s adviser Marc Branham, Ferreira found that six of the specimens — from collections in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Ottawa, Ontario — were three species that had never before been identified. DNA extracted by Ferreira in the Marsh Lab cemented their hypothesis.

“This discovery is really amazing for two major reasons,” said Ferreira. “Firstly, it’s a really weird beetle that nobody has seen before. Secondly, we were able to get these specimens from scientific collections. Some of those specimens have been there for over 50 years and nobody had ever been able to identify them. This is going to forever change how we understand the evolution of fireflies and how different they are from other known beetles.”

The new species looked in some ways like the family of beetles that Ferreira specializes in, Lycidae. But in other ways they resembled fireflies, which belong to the family Lampyridae, Keller’s specialty.

“They had characteristics of both of the families of beetles we study, but didn’t fit into either family,” said Keller. “They are fireflies but they don’t have light organs when they are adults. All of the samples we identified are adult males, so we don’t know for sure what the larvae or females look like.”

Ferreira and Keller named the new genus Chespirito and the three new species ballantyneae, lloydi and zaragozai. Their identification is the focus of their paper, “Multilocus Phylogeny Support the Non-Bioluminescent Firefly Chespirito as a New Subfamily in the Lampyridae,” published in the journal Insect Systematics and Diversity on Nov. 13.

They named the genus and new subfamily – Chespiritoinae – in honor of Roberto Gómez Bolaños, a Mexican actor and comedian more commonly known by his stage name Chespirito, or “Little Shakespeare.”

“These beetles together represent a new lineage of non-bioluminescent fireflies endemic to Mexico. They’re only known to be found there,” said Ferreira. “Our decision to name the new subfamily after Chespirito was a way to honor this well-known artist, and also to pay homage to preserving the biodiversity in the place where this beetle comes from, by naming it after someone who is so important to that country.”

The species names recognize three prominent firefly experts: Lesley Ballantyne, a world-renowned firefly expert from Australia; Santiago Zaragoza Cabbalero, a prominent Mexican entomologist; and James Lloyd, an emeritus professor from Keller’s the University of Florida who taught for 50 years before passing away earlier this summer.

“Those three individuals have done a lot for this field of research, so we wanted to take the opportunity to honor them by naming the species after them,” said Keller.

Ferreira hopes that naming a new subfamily will also serve to increase interest in studying beetles and underscore the importance of scientific collections like those that house the newly identified Chespirito species.

“Out of 1.3 million species of animals that have been named, about 400,000 are beetles,” said Ferreira. “Having the opportunity to name a new subfamily is an amazing thing in our field. We hope to engage a wider audience of people and get them interested in this amazing biodiversity, while emphasizing the importance of these scientific collections to understanding the world around us.”