Drive To Discover

What beetles know about climate change

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A top researcher at the California Academy of Sciences has accidentally discovered new evidence of climate change in the western United States. He's one of the foremost beetle researchers in the world, and he believes the insects have a lot to teach us.

Dave Kavanaugh has been collecting bugs his entire life -- first as a hobby and then as a career. He is the Senior Curator of Entomology at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

Dave is in charge of one of the biggest and most important insect collections anywhere in the world.

"This collection is about 10 million fully prepared and processed specimens," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Dave and his fellow researchers travel all over the world looking for new species. In a recent expedition to China Dave discovered a new beetle.

"The work we do at the academy and other institutions like ours, where we study biodiversity and inventory the species on earth. It is really vital information in prioritizing what areas are most important for preservation and protection," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Dave studies all insects, but he specializes in a particular type of beetle.

Nebria beetles live in mountains, on the edges of snow fields, glaciers and cold mountain streams. Their bodies produce a chemical that works like antifreeze, allowing them to live in extreme cold temperatures.

During the 1970s and 80's, Dave traveled all over the western United States learning more about Nebria beetles. He was thrilled to find dozens of new species.

"Pretty exciting," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Now times are changing. Dave wants to study the beetles' DNA, but the old preservation methods destroyed the genetic material in the Academy's collection.

So Dave went looking for replacements in the same places he collected beetles 20 to 30 years ago. He was shocked by what he found.

"Just about wherever I visited, I found that the beetles were either very much rarer in occurrence or weren't there at all," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Dave eventually discovered many beetles had moved to higher elevations and in some cases, several hundred feet higher.

"I think these beetles are very, very sensitive indicators of climate change," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Dave believes the beetles are moving higher to keep cool as their habitat melts away. The mountain streams have changed.

"They had become more overgrown with more vegetation right on the banks, not cool rocky raging streams," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

One spot he documented is Upper Caribou Lake in the Trinity Alps in Northern California. One of Dave's students found the beetles at a higher altitude on nearby Thomson Peak.

But the glacier on that mountain, a critical part of the beetle's habitat, is breaking up, and that means the beetle species may soon run out of habitat all together.

"It's already at the top of the mountain and it's got nowhere else to go," said Kavanaugh, Ph.D.

Dave is getting funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to keep monitoring the shifting range of mountain beetles. He believes they'll be an important measure of global warming in the future.

All of Dave's work is based at the California Academy of Sciences new building in Golden Gate Park.

In addition to research, they have a fabulous new museum that's attracted tens of thousands of visitors since it opened in September.

This Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., ABC7 News will be rebroadcasting "Under the Living Roof" -- a one-hour special on the making of the new academy.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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