UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2009
[digging deeper]
Meet the Beetles
Delving into all things Coleoptera
by Kelly Knufken

PHOTO BY TIM MANTOANI
T

he striking thing is the horn. It’s glossy and threatening and, whoa, is that fur on the underside? This is a beetle, but it’s a menacing specimen, and it’s under the purview of assistant biology professor Geoff Morse.

But his current work involves studying beetles at the other end of the size spectrum, creatures so small most of us wouldn’t even notice them. They’re tiny seed beetles, named for their diet and lair. Morse and the undergraduates he’s overseeing are looking at beetles as small as 2 millimeters long.

“They are rather tiny,” he says, understating it. “But they kill the offspring of trees, so they’re pretty powerful. It’s a pretty horrible relationship for the plant.”

Morse talks with ease and enthusiasm about beetles, chatting with students about this one that takes on the shape of the sunflower seeds it feeds on or that one that cuts its way out of a tough palm fruit seed. The interesting facts he sprinkles into conversation make you want to know more — much more — about these beetles.

He’s always been somewhat of a scientist, owing to his upbringing in the natural environs of Utah, where his scientist parents bought him his first microscope at age 6, sent him to science camps and let him explore the “phenomenal” natural history that was all around him.

“I think a lot about the things that people don’t notice, like the microscopic majority,” he says. “It opened my eyes to things that I was lucky to see. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I love it. It is really exciting for me.”

The aforementioned menacing rhinoceros beetle — the one with the glossy, 10-centimeter horn that’s as long as its body — is part of the private beetle collection of David Rockefeller, which is curated by Morse. These are special because many were collected in the 1930s through 1960s in Brazil’s Atlantic lowland rainforest — now largely nonexistent — and many may now be extinct.

“Who knows how many have relatives still alive today?” Morse asks. “To think that they don’t, to me, says something about our stewardship of the planet and where we might be going wrong.”

His research — he’s collected just under 50,000 seed beetles in his career — concerns the diversity of insects that feed on plants. They make up about a quarter of all species found on land, and Morse aims to add to the knowledge about why they’re so prevalent.

This past summer and this fall, Morse and his students are studying the co-evolution between seed beetles and plants. Undergraduate research has played a huge role in Morse’s career, and he’s eager to pass on his enthusiasm. His first research job came during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years in college, when he spent his time researching, yes, seed beetles. “Hands-on experience is just so incredibly important,” he says.

He leads a visitor to an “animal care room,” in the basement of the Donald P. Shiley Center for Science and Technology that contains a refrigerator, some tables and several clear boxes filled with seeds and the tiny beetles that are his subject.

“Having access to this room makes doing my research possible,” he says. It was part of what impressed him about USD and its facilities for undergraduate research. Doing the research makes him a better teacher, too, he says.

The one-on-one interaction with faculty out of the classroom setting is invaluable for learning science, Morse says. “You learn what success means and what failure means. To do something that no one’s ever done before, and if it doesn’t work it’s OK — those kind of experiences can’t be undervalued.”