Professor Adam Slipinski is passionate about beetles. Now immersed in the massive task of identifying and classifying thousands of Australian species for the definitive CSIRO catalogue on these insects, he says a proper understanding of beetles is crucial. Although they can be serious pests, he says, beetles also provide essential environmental services – they are pollinators, scavengers of refuse, and pest predators.
Beetles are major pollinators of avocado plants. Dung beetles, first imported to Australia by CSIRO in the 1960s, clean up horse and cattle excrement, keeping bush fly numbers down. Ladybirds, a widespread family of small beetles, are one of the more important biological control agents, attacking scale insects and aphids. “We are starting to appreciate that,” Slipinski says. “People don’t want to use chemicals any more.”
In charge of CSIRO’s beetle collections, which run to about eight million specimens, Slipinski says there are about 30,000 already scientifically described species of beetle in Australia, and a further 30,000 or 40,000 that have never been described.
Originally from Poland, Slipinski immigrated to Australia to work with the Australian Insect Collection at CSIRO in 2000. Fed up with administrative work in Poland, he wanted to return to pure science, and he noted that compared with Europe, where most species have been carefully catalogued with keys to identify them, there wasn’t much scientific literature of that type in his new home country. He decided a proper and comprehensive register of Australian beetles was required.
“We are now working on a series of four, maybe even five volumes of Australian beetles,” he explains, adding that this major book series, which will also be available in a digital version, would guide beetle identification at the genus level.
“In principle, what I’m working on is the evolution of beetles, how to classify them properly, how to recognise them and how utilise them for biological control, or environmental impact,” he says.
With his intense focus on the CSIRO beetle collection, Slipinski has noticed that various species of Australian species seem to be shrinking in numbers. “Looking at the historical collections we have, and looking at what we’re collecting these days, there is a big discrepancy,” he says. “Something has changed.”
Entomologists in the northern hemisphere have monitored the crash of various species, including honeybees, and Slipinski believes something similar is happening in Australia, which could have devastating environmental consequences down the line.
“The problem is, the environment is changing,” he adds. “When the niche is empty, the weeds, the pests, the organisms which are biologically very tolerant, they move in.”