Professors from CSU, CU study conservation through beetles

Seth Bodine

The red flour beetle is known as an invasive species that eats any kind of wheat, and scientists have used these beetles to study specifically how invasive species spread. However, a professor at Colorado State University and a professor at the University of Colorado are studying them as a way of conservation.

Professor Ruth Hufbauer describes the significance of the Tribolium Castaneum beetle which is no bigger than a grain of rice. (Photo credit: Ryan Arb.)
Professor Ruth Hufbauer describes the significance of the red flour beetle, which is no bigger than a grain of rice. (Photo credit: Ryan Arb.)

Ruth Hufbauer, a CSU professor in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management, and Brett Melbourne, a CU assistant professor of in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, are using red flour beetle populations to study factors that dwindle or expand a population of species. The study was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

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Hufbauer said the beetles are better for research because they can reproduce quickly and she can use large numbers of them ethically.

“I got involved in questions that would be really difficult to do in nature to ask and to address in nature with experiments, because it would be unethical to to just release things out into nature, and also there’s just so many challenges with working outside,” Hufbauer said. “We think carefully about the design of these experiments so that they can give us general answers that we can then apply to many other species in the wild, such as tigers or trees.”

Melbourne said that the beetles act as “model species” for the research without wildlife in risk.  

“For example, you would not want to purposely introduce an invasive species to the wild to see what happens, or try different ways to make a species go extinct. So, we can use the beetle in artificial ecosystems in the laboratory to answer these difficult questions,” Melbourne wrote in an email to the Collegian

Tribolium Castaneum beetles are used as a safe test subject for researching the most effective methods of species rehabilitation. (Photo credit: Ryan Arb.)
Red flour beetles are used as a safe test subject for researching the most effective methods of species rehabilitation. (Photo credit: Ryan Arb.)

According to Hufbauer, what has been done historically to help a declining population of animals is to bring more to the population. While this helps, Hufbauer was interested in seeing if it was merely the numbers or the genetics that help a group survive. 

“I see the beetles as a model the way a wind engineer (would) build a scale model of a building and put it in a wind tunnel and blow the wind at it,” Hufbauer said. “You don’t want to do that with the actual building, because that’s way too expensive. But if you can build a model that represents enough of the real world system, then you can learn a lot from it.”

Using natural populations of beetles allows Hufbauer to manipulate the systems while adding genetically similar individuals of beetles. She said the results of the study were that genetics matter. With just a few beetles with a different genetic background, it reduced the extinction rate and increased adaptation.  

Melbourne and Hufbauer are continuing to research how genetic and ecological processes combine to determine how a species goes extinct or expand its range. 

“I think that for each species that’s endangered or threatened, or any individual population that we’re worried about, we’ll need to have data on that,” Hufbauer said. “But by doing large replicated experiments like this in the lab, we can understand the mechanisms that are underlying this.”

Collegian Science Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @sbodine120.

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