Jewel beetles turn out to be Thailand's crowning glory

Jewel beetles turn out to be Thailand’s crowning glory

Published on Aug 9, 1997

The country is researcher’s delight, says expert


THERE are immense opportunities for biodiversity research in Thailand, a Japanese researcher revealed yesterday, particularly for those interested in less popular creatures such as insects.

An amateur expert in buprestid beetles, sometimes called ”jewel” beetles due to their metallic-looking shiny wings which shimmer in a variety of flamboyant colours, Sadahiro Ohmomo’s rather cursory exploration of Thailand’s insect world has already yielded the discovery of 30 new species.

He estimates Thailand is home to another 200 to 300 new buprestid beetles (maeng tap) just waiting to be found.

Ohmomo’s research in Thailand has been carried out over the last 10 years, but he has done it as a hobby  he is not a professional entomologist  and he has yet to even look for specimens in the forest.

Rather, he often makes interesting finds in Thai markets, where beetles are often sold in display cases, as food or as jewellery. For instance, Ohmomo discovered one new species, the tinypolyctesis ohkurai, when he bought a sample of 100 beetles from a villager in Chiang Mai for Bt10 each.

Thailand is a relatively good place to look for new species, Ohmomo explained, because in Japan (and Western countries) there are many entomologists who have already studied local insects.

In Thailand, there are only two scientists interested in buprestid beetles.

Other countries in the region, such as Laos and Vietnam, have already been explored by European scientists, when they were colonies. But there are difficulties in identifying species found here, because the specimens to which they must be compared are mostly stored in European museums.

Ohmomo was in Bangkok yesterday to take part in a press conference held by the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), which introduced its Biodiversity Research and Training Programme.

”Thailand has a lot of biodiversity, but does little research,” explained project director Visut Baimay.

”So we have set up this programme with the main goal of bringing together information about our biodiversity. There have been many foreigners who have come here to do research over the last 70 or 80 years.”

Visut noted, as an example, that Kew Gardens in England has an extensive collection of plant species from Thailand. Although the specimens themselves cannot be sent back for fear they might fall apart, the information collected about them can easily be shared, he said.

As part of the programme, Ohmomo provided the NSTDA with a series of papers he has written on buprestid beetles and other Thai insects. But Visut said that the NSTDA just serves as a coordinator for gathering such information. The actual work has to be carried out by other government agencies, mostly in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives.

Ohmomo said that the beetles he collects in Thailand are mostly stored in Japan, but if he has extra specimens he sends some back to Thailand. The new species he discovers, however, are often quite rare and so he is only able to collect a few specimens.

According to a book written by the Japanese scientist, there are about 20,000 species of buprestid beetles around the world, with the largest, megaloxantha bicolor assamensis, found in northern Thailand.

The multi-hued insects are important to forest ecosystems because they eat dead wood, thus helping to turn dead trees into nutrients from which new trees can grow.

But although the beetles are often sold as tourist trinkets or snacks, Ohmomo said there is little commercial value in researching the creatures.

”I just like to study them because they’re beautiful,” he explained.

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