The oldest book I own was published in 1839, and in it James Francis Stephens describes the distribution of Rhyssemus germanus with a few words: “Sandy coasts: near Bristol”. When the Canon Fowler wrote about it in 1890 he was able to add that it was “said by Curtis [who was active up until the mid-1850s] to have been taken near Swansea” but added that “I know of no recent captures”. This beetle was also recorded from South Lancashire in the 1800s but I don’t have any more detail on that record.
It was a massive shock to identify a single specimen of Rhyssemus germanus from a nocturnal torching session at Dungeness RSPB Reserve on 15-16 June this year! There is a similar species of dung beetle which I have seen a few times before at Dungeness (Psammodius asper) and I had little doubt that this specimen would turn out to be another of those. But when, on Thursday, I lined this year’s specimen up against my reference specimens of P. asper, I got a shock. Definitely something else, and I pulled out the RES Handbook and had soon keyed it out to R. germanus!
Unfortunately, the thrill of rediscovering a long extinct beetle in Britain was fairly short-lived. Once I’d got in touch with Darren Mann, he told me that R. germanus was discovered elsewhere in south-eastern England a few years ago. The discoverer has yet to publish his find so I won’t steal any more of his thunder here.
R. germanus is a dung-beetle in name but I think it is one of the species that feeds on decaying vegetation rather than on dung, living in dry sandy areas such as coastal dunes and riverbanks. I would guess that R. germanus has genuinely gone extinct at its 19th-century sites on the west coast of Britain but has recently re-colonised the south-east from the continent. Bearing that in mind, Darren advises that there’s a very similar species Rhyssemus puncticollis on the continent which could potentially make it over here. We’ll need to study a male from Dungeness to be sure which species occurs there, and my sole specimen is a female.
So I haven’t rediscovered an extinct beetle, and there is a small chance that I’ve discovered a beetle new to Britain. The rest of the story will unfold with further research. But I got a real kick out of seeing it anyway!
Thanks to Darren Mann for info and to Mark Gurney and Andy Skinner for company in the field.