Insects of Britain and Ireland: the families of Coleoptera

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L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz

Introduction

This data set is generated from a DELTA database (Dallwitz 1980; Dallwitz, Paine and Zurcher 1993). It forms part of the ‘Insects of Britain and Ireland’ suite of packages, which was originally intended to present scans of the fine hand-coloured engravings of insects in John Curtis’s British Entomology: illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland (1824–1840), of which Volumes 1–12 volumes of the first edition are available to us. For further information on this remarkable work, see Notes on John Curtis’s British Entomology. The Curtis illustrations have subsequently been supplemented from other sources listed in the References, but in the present instance we are especially indebted to Martin Halley (http://www.restoredprints.com) for painstakingly photographing for us the plates and text from the 1836-1840 issues dealing with Coleoptera.

In addition to presenting Curtis’s and other early illustrations, all the ‘Insects of Britain and Ireland’ subsets incorporate descriptive data organized under the DELTA system, and purport to offer facilities for attempting at least partial identification and for information retrieval, via the interactive program Intkey. The present one encompasses all the families of Coleoptera of Britain and Ireland, described via standard morphological and ecological characters and extensively illustrated. It is unlikely to achieve its taxonomic objectives satisfactorily at this early stage of development, but in any case the DELTA data (from which updates of the interactive package are easily generated) are readily accessible for improving, correcting and extending. Input from interested entomologists is of course encouraged in this connection.

Descriptive data and illustrations

In addition to presenting Curtis’s and other early illustrations, all the ‘Insects of Britain and Ireland’ subsets incorporate descriptive data organized under the DELTA system, and purport to offer facilities for attempting at least partial identification and for information retrieval, via the interactive program Intkey. The present one encompasses all the families of Coleoptera of Britain and Ireland, described via standard morphological and ecological characters and extensively illustrated. Family descriptions were compiled mainly from Unwin’s (1984) key to the families of Britain and Ireland, cross referenced with Joy’s Practical Handbook (1932) and Britton’s (1970) detailed taxonomic descriptions; then greatly improved and extended using the two Lawrence et al. (1999) Intkey packages, Beetles of the World and Beetle Larvae of the World. The latter offer comprehensive, properly comparative family descriptions of adult beetles and larvae, accompanied by excellent morphological character lists, complete with detailed, illustrated glossaries and character notes, and ought now to be used for taxonomic treatments worldwide. In the present context, narrow family circumscriptions that are at least to some extent justifiable on taxonomic grounds have been preferred, because the elevated levels of internal variation exhibited by sensu lato alternatives often preclude straightforward family diagnoses, can be unpractical for pursuing identifications, and pose serious problems for classificatory and cladistic morphological analyses of the data. Sensu stricto descriptions also have the potential to better indicate the extent of sampling in relation to 'esoteric' characters, many of which are of considerable taxonomic and/or economic interest. Should sensu lato descriptions be required, they are very easily generated automatically from our sensu stricto versions, complete with statistical distributions of character states, by applying Intkey to the data; retrieving narrow alternatives from broader ones, on the other hand, is very laborious.

To provide illustrations in the absence of the final two volumes of Curtis, we originally resorted to scans from Janson’s (1863: black-and-white) transcriptions; and by including additional illustrations from Rye and Fowler (1890), we were able to exemplify most of the beetle families of Britain and Ireland with at least one picture. However, the coverage is now much improved via the plates from volumes 2-6 of Fowler’s impressive Coleoptera of the British Islands (1888–1913). Adapting them has involved laborious re-touching of the scans obtained from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, as well as an effort at comprehensively updating the legends. Attempts at updating Curtis’s and Fowler’s nomenclature for Coleoptera (see Updated insect names for John Curtis’s British Entomology and for Fowler’s Coleoptera of the British Islands) have been conducted principally with reference to Pope’s (1977) update of the Coleoptera component of the Kloet and Hincks Check List, but also necessitated cross referencing with the 1945 original, with Janson’s (1863) interpretations of Curtis, with Joy’s Practical Handbook (1932), and more recently with Internet sources. The interactive Fauna Europaea check list is especially useful in this connection, although it is as yet incomplete for such problem groups as the Staphylinidae. It is obviously impracticable in the present context to keep abreast of nomenclatural recombinations, generation of which continues apace; and while the family descriptions presented here are cross referenced nomenclaturally with the 2008 Check List now available at available at The Coleopterist, they have not been re-organized to account for changes in the circumscriptions. We hope, however, that the recently applied names given with the fine Curtis and Fowler illustrations in this package might encourage their use in connection with modern texts.

The Curtis and Fowler plates are cited in the Intkey displays of taxon images, where they are accompanied by scans of the original legends, and in the case of Curtis by his full text. The latter offers numerous examples of his entertaining, informative and elegantly expressed notes on sources of specimens, morphological interpretations, classificatory methodology, general biology, etc.; see, for example, the accounts of Emus hirtus in the Staphylinidae (B. Ent. 534), of Trox sabulosus in the Trogidae (B. Ent. 574), and of Blaps lethifera in the Tenebrionidae (B. Ent. 148).

Family assignments of the Coleoptera illustrated have been checked at that level, in effect with reference to the family descriptions in works cited in the References, by ‘identifying’ illustrations using the present Intkey package and that of Lawrence et al. (1999). Checking on the generic and specific identities of the insects depicted has of course been very limited, and expert input would be welcomed. Meanwhile, persons wishing to use the pictures for their own purposes should take the necessary precautions for themselves.

This package is essentially an early draft treatment of the representatives in Britain and Ireland of this enormous family, but even in its present form it should suffice to demonstrate the superiority of interactive identification and information retrieval over hard copy. Similar considerations apply to most of the compilations in this ‘Insects of Britain and Ireland’ series, all of which are readily accessible for extending, improving and making corrections. Organization under the Delta system ensures ready access for corrections and improvements. Informed criticism and constructive input are of course welcome, and will be appropriately acknowledged. Alternatively, complete Delta data sets can be donated if required for teaching purposes, or to any professional or amateur entomologist or organization interested in developing them further.

Edited 1 July 2012


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