Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

FNZ 61 - Lucanidae (Insecta: Coleoptera) - Introduction

Holloway, BA 2007. Lucanidae (Insecta: Coleoptera). Fauna of New Zealand 61, 254 pages.
( ISSN 0111-5383 (print), ; no. 61. ISBN 978-0-478-09395-7 (print), ). Published 21 Nov 2007


The Lucanidae is a relatively small family with about 1300 described species worldwide (Franciscolo 1997; Bartolozzi et al 1998; Bartolozzi & Sforzi 2005). The usually robust body, clubbed and often geniculate antennae and, in many males, the disproportionately large and ornate mandibles are distinctive features that make lucanids some of the most easily recognised beetles.

In Europe and parts of the world where Europeans have settled, lucanids are known popularly as stag beetles or flying stags or a title that translates to these names, e.g. Hirschkäfer in German, cervo volante in Italian, cerf volant in French. It is generally assumed that these are old names chosen because of the often antler-like mandibles of males, but the comparison with stags is actually relatively recent.

Cameron (1980) found that the name Lucanus has been applied to lucanids since at least the first century B.C. at which time it had an association with elephants, not stags. The following extracts are from his paper. ‘Lucanus is a Latin word meaning “coming from Lucania” [present day Basilicata in southern Italy]…..Pliny the Elder [23–79] says (N[aturalis] H[istoria] 11.34.97), “In one large kind of insect there are very long horns, toothed with two pronged forceps, which come together at the tips for pinching. These beetles are hung around the necks of children for amulets. Nigidius calls them Lucani.” The Nigidius whom Pliny mentioned was…..Nigidius Figulus, an encyclopaedist of the first century B.C., whose work survives only in fragments. In order to understand why Nigidius called them Lucanian beetles, we must appeal to Roman history, and to…..Latin military slang, which developed during Rome’s wars with King Pyrrhus of Epirus. At the battle of Heraclea in Lucania (280 B.C.) the Romans first saw war elephants…..The soldiers began to call these unfamiliar, huge, tusked beasts “Lucanian cows”…..and it soon became a commonplace expression…..Nigidius Figulus, contemplating the great size and tusklike mandibles of these insects, called them “Lucanian beetles” by way of saying “elephant beetles”. The name endured, thanks to Pliny, although the metaphor was forgotten, and replaced in the Renaissance with a comparison to a stag.

Major F.J.S. Parry, an entomologist in England, was the first person to record stag beetles from New Zealand. In 1843 he published the description of Mitophyllus irroratus, new genus, new species, from two specimens collected at Port Nicholson (now Wellington Harbour). Shortly after, descriptions of Lucanus (now Paralissotes) reticulatus Westwood, 1844 and Lucanus (now Geodorcus) novaezealandiae Hope, 1845 were published and although the type specimens are stated to be merely from New Zealand it is likely that they also were collected in the vicinity of Port Nicholson, where both species can still be found. The type locality of Dendroblax earlii White, described in 1846 is the Hutt River, at Port Nicholson. For the next 50 years many new species of New Zealand lucanids were described, some by coleopterists living in Europe, and others by Major Thomas Broun who was working in relative isolation in New Zealand. Frequently the species were based on single specimens and as at that time very little was known about sexual dimorphism and morphological variation in the New Zealand lucanid fauna some of the names were later found to be synonyms. The first edition of the Coleopterorum Catalogus Lucanidae (Roon 1910) recorded 27 valid New Zealand species spread among the two endemic genera, Dendroblax White, 1846 and Mitophyllus Parry, 1843 and in the Australian genera Lissotes Westwood, 1855 and Ceratognathus Westwood, 1838. The second edition of the catalogue (Benesh 1960) recorded 35 New Zealand species (including in error the Australian species Lissotes basilaris Deyrolle, 1881) placed in Dendroblax, Lissotes, and in Ceratognathus, under which Mitophyllus appeared as a synonym.

My previous revision of the New Zealand Lucanidae (Holloway 1961) recognised 24 endemic species, assigned to Dendroblax, Dorcus MacLeay, 1819, Lissotes, and Ceratognathus, and referred to the paper by Gourlay (1954) which reported the establishment in Gisborne of the Australian lucanid, Ryssonotus nebulosus (Kirby, 1818).

Since 1961 two more endemic species have been described (Holloway 1962, 1963a), and two new endemic genera, Geodorcus Holloway, 1996 and Paralissotes Holloway, 1996 have been established for the species previously placed in Dorcus and Lissotes respectively (Holloway 1996). The New Zealand lucanids that had been assigned to Ceratognathus have been shown not to belong in that genus (Holloway 1997); three of the species are now in the endemic genus Holloceratognathus Nikolaev, 1998 created initially as a subgenus of Ceratognathus, and the remainder have been transferred to the reinstated endemic genus Mitophyllus (Holloway 1998). Two more Australian lucanids have been added to the New Zealand list; one of these, Syndesus cornutus (Fabricius, 1801), has become established here (May 1963), the other, Lamprima aurata Latreille, 1807 is known only from a single live specimen found in a rural situation in 1990 (Holloway 1997).

For several years the New Zealand fauna was thought to include Figulus modestus and F. monilifer. Parry (1862) described these as New Zealand species without knowing that their provenance was in doubt and that names had already been applied to both species. Figulus modestus was actually a synonym of F. fissicollis Fairmaire, 1849 from the Pacific and F. monilifer was a synonym of the African species, F. sublaevis (Palinot de Beauvois, 1805). The synonymic errors were rectified by Parry (1864a, 1875) and doubts about the New Zealand records were indicated by Parry himself (1864a) and by Sharp (1884). Neither species has subsequently been found here so it is reasonable to conclude that the supposed New Zealand association resulted from mislabelling of specimens. Benesh (1960) sensibly deleted New Zealand from the range of Figulus.

The present revision deals with adults of the 39 species that have been found in outdoor situations in New Zealand. Thirtyfive of the species are endemic and belong in five endemic genera representing three widely distributed subfamilies: Dendroblax (Lampriminae), Geodorcus and Paralissotes (Lucaninae), and Holloceratognathus and Mitophyllus (Aesalinae). Of the remaining four species, the three from Australia, Lamprima aurata (Lampriminae), Ryssonotus nebulosus (Lucaninae), and Syndesus cornutus (Syndesinae), have already been mentioned and the fourth is a Taiwanese species, Serrognathus sika (Kriesche, 1921). Three males of this large lucanine were found outdoors in a residential area of Auckland during the summer of 2000–2001 and to date these are the only known New Zealand specimens. In Asia where the genus is widely distributed large males of some of the species are often kept as pets, and it is likely that the specimens found in New Zealand were brought here for that purpose.

This revision records three new species of Mitophyllus and four of Geodorcus. In addition, two species of Mitophyllus are reinstated. There are no new synonymies but one transferred synonymy. While some of the New Zealand lucanids are widely distributed and relatively common others are known from just a few localities, and several are represented in collections by only one or two specimens. Undoubtedly new species, particularly of the genus Geodorcus, await discovery on remote and less accessible mountains in the South Island, and perhaps on some offshore islands. The genus Mitophyllus has produced several surprises in the present study, including the discovery of two new species that are “look alikes” of the common and widely distributed M. parrianus Westwood with which they are sympatric. The most obvious external differences between these three species are in the shape of the mandibles in males, but to the naked eye, especially in the field, these features could easily be overlooked. However, a ×10 hand lens provides enough magnification to recognise each of the species and, as well, will allow field identification of most of the other New Zealand stag beetles.

For centuries artistically creative people have featured stag beetles in paintings and books, on jewellery, bronzes, and porcelain, and more recently as larger-than-life plastic models that are available in toy departments. Beautiful coloured plates showing some of these items, dating from the 16th century to the present day, are included in the magnificent book “Il Cervo Volante (Coleoptera Lucanidae)” edited by Giorgio Taroni (1998). New Zealand has its own example, carved in kauri wood: a male of the large, flightless lucanid, Geodorcus helmsi, is one of the insects depicted on the spectacular pare (door lintel) at NZAC, Landcare Research, Auckland. A representation of the pare appears on the title page of all Fauna of New Zealand volumes published since 1990, the year in which the carving was unveiled. Photographs of the pare and a male of G. helmsi are shown in the frontispiece of the present volume. Eva Sprecher and Giorgio Taroni (2004) have recently published “Lucanus cervus depictus” a most wonderfully illustrated book with the text in both Italian and English on the mythology, superstition and legend of the European stag beetle Lucanus cervus.

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