Saproxylic beetles are beetles which depend on dead and decaying wood for at least part of their lifecycle. It is estimated that there are thousands of different saproxylic beetle species in Europe, performing a variety of significant roles within ecosystems, from decomposition of natural materials and nutrient recycling to providing an important food source for many vertebrates. Some beetles are even involved in pollination. In this interview, Dr Dmitry Telnov, a beetle expert from Latvia, talks about his work assessing species for the IUCN European Red List and how he became involved in beetle research and conservation.
This is the seventh in a series of interviews with Red List Species Assessors involved in IUCN’s European Red Lists LIFE project. Our interviewee is a saproxylic beetle expert, but future interviews will profile mollusc and plant experts. The project aims to assess the extinction risk of these species groups, and will contribute to guiding policy decisions and conservation action at the European level. You can find previous interviews in the series here.
Dr Dmitry Telnov considers himself a “born naturalist”. From a very early age he was highly interested in nature and animals, watching numerous nature documentaries, and by the age of seven he had already started to develop his first insect collection. Before he reached his tenth birthday, he found that an interest in beetles had started to grow. “I do not think that I selected beetles, but that beetles selected me,” he tells IUCN in a call from his home in Riga, Latvia. “Otherwise, I cannot explain why beetles and not ants, moths, praying mantis or whatever else.”
Dr Telnov has now worked with beetles for more than 35 years, the last 20 of which have involved scientific activities. He still maintains a strong interest in wildlife generally, and even co-owns a private zoo for abandoned animals in Bauska, a small town in southern Latvia, which is home to species ranging from monitor lizards to foxes.
There are several things Dr Telnov enjoys about his work with beetles. For instance, he takes great pleasure in identifying species new to science, which he calls the “moment of excitement and discovery.” “Sometimes I see a specimen in a field and I think ‘this may be something special’. I look at it closer and say ‘Wow! I am the first person in the world who has collected this species and described it!’ That is amazing. What you feel is incredible.” So far he has named more than 300 beetle species, mostly from the family of ant-like flower beetles.
Dr Telnov also enjoys sharing his knowledge and data, and for this to be used for conservation purposes. To him “it is not important if it is a beetle or a bird”, just that this knowledge can be used in some way to help preserve “these beautiful creatures.” “I feel that it is my personal responsibility not only to have specimens in boxes and nice publications in journals but also to use the data for conservation” he says.
Dr Telnov first became involved in species assessments about eight years ago, when IUCN launched a call for beetle experts from across Europe. The aim was to prepare the first European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles. At the time, IUCN was particularly interested in expertise from the region to the east of the European Union, such as Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. With his knowledge of fauna in the Baltics and north-eastern Europe, Dr Telnov felt compelled to get involved. IUCN contacted him again in 2015, inviting him to join the project on compiling the second European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles, which was being prepared to expand the number of species and provide a more comprehensive overview of the status of this group in Europe. As part of this project, Dr Telnov assessed the extinction risk of around 60 species of European comb-clawed beetles.
According to Dr Telnov, like most insect species, one of the main threats to saproxylic beetles is the lack of knowledge. “The data we have is rather limited, especially on the ecology, the microhabitat and the distribution of the species.” Regarding real threats, he pinpoints discontinuity and decreases in available habitat. “The habitat of saproxylic beetles is ensured by the presence of veteran trees, old hollow trees or the presence of an appropriate amount of deadwood in the biotope.” However, he sees the same trend occurring in many different places: older and bigger trees being cut down or removed, with important repercussions for saproxylic species.
Climate change also threatens to cause major disruption, although the consequences for local fauna can be difficult to gauge. In northern Europe, the winters have been getting shorter and milder, the frosts less strong. “We have observed a number of new insect species arriving in the last ten years, such as central and southern European species. For example, we have had praying mantis in Latvia for the last three years, which is incredible to see.”
According to Dr Telnov, the hardest thing about assessing the extinction risk of saproxylic beetles is the lack of data. For several species he found that there were only one or two historical specimens, with no further publications or records. “Are they naturally rare or were they affected by human activities? We simply do not know.” In cases like these, the species is assessed as Data Deficient “but, in fact, these species may be threatened,” he says.
In addition, Dr Telnov found that there were different accounts of species’ behaviour in different regions. “We experienced some complex situations with certain species.” For example, in some regions a particular beetle is not considered dependent on dead or decaying wood, but rather it is associated with open meadow habitat, whereas in the Baltics the same species is connected with deadwood at the larval stage. “I did some field work in Latvia and central Europe to get confirmation that the larvae of this species are at least partly dependent on deadwood.”
There are also significant data discrepancies between regions. “The level of knowledge on a particular species is not the same in different parts of Europe. The available information in the eastern part and the western part of Europe differs considerably. It is really hard to deal with this uneven availability of data,” he says.
When asked about his favourite saproxylic beetle, Dr Telnov gives an unexpected though elegant answer: “It will be a species that people have saved from the brink of extinction, one which was Endangered or Critically Endangered, but that after implementing the necessary management activities based on the IUCN assessment its situation improved and had its Red List status downgraded. I do not think we have any examples in Europe at the moment. We have rather good management activities on some saproxylic beetles so maybe they will result in my favourite species in a few years.”
The new European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles has recently been published, revealing that around 18% of saproxylic beetles species are threatened with extinction in Europe. You can find the full publication here.