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Extinct no longer

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.

Rhyssemus germanus. The bumpy ridges on the elytra are the most striking difference from Psammodius asper.

The structure of the hind tarsi and hind-tibial spurs is a key distinction from other psammodiines.

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.

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