Montana State University

Tale of new beetle involves MSU, Robert Redford and Liver-Eating Johnson

December 23, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

This Redford beetle was photographed under a compound light microscope. The arrow points to an area of the head that helped distinguish the beetle from its relatives. (Photo courtesy of Crystal Maier).   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN - A tough little beetle that had Montana State University entomologists crawling on steep rocks above an Idaho hot spring is a new species named after actor and director Robert Redford.

After news articles appeared in Idaho this fall, MSU scientist Michael Ivie, former MSU graduate student Crystal Maier and University of Idaho entomologist James B. (Ding) Johnson explained how they discovered the beetle and why they called it Hydroscapha redfordi.

The first part of the name indicates what the beetle is related to, and that it is aquatic. The three scientists captured almost 500 of the "teeny, tiny" beetles in 2007 above the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs in northern Idaho. The second part of the name honors Redford.

Maier said the trio originally believed that the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs got its name from mountain man Liver-Eating Johnson, who Redford played in the 1972 movie, "Jeremiah Johnson." Although the connection later proved false, Ivie had watched the movie as a high school student and said the story and setting inspired him to move to and work in the Rockies. The entomologists also wanted to honor Redford for his efforts on behalf of the environment.

"It is Redford's continuing work to safeguard the wild legacy of the Rocky Mountains that makes this name a fitting tribute," they wrote in the paper they published in a 2010 issue of The Coleopterists Bulletin.

Entomologists can decide on their own what to name their discoveries, Ivie said. They don't have to submit the name to a board for approval. He, Maier and Johnson did notify Redford after the fact, however. Ivie and Johnson said they haven't heard from Redford directly, but his publicist sent a thank-you note.

The scientific paper was Maier's first as an author. Now a doctoral student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Maier said the discovery of a new species started as a trip to see Ding Johnson (no known relation to Jerry or Jeremiah Johnson) and look at material in the University of Idaho entomology museum. A long-time colleague of Ivie's, Johnson suggested the three also collect beetles above a hot spring halfway between Moscow, Idaho, and Bozeman.

"At dinner, we discussed looking for the hydroscaphid because Mike (truly a world-class coleopterist) had never collected the family, and I had," Johnson said. "Adding a family to Mike's collecting experience was a big factor for me, but his focus was that the material would be important for the Tree of Life Project."

Ivie is one of the group leaders in the international Beetle Tree of Life Project. Participating scientists are gathering DNA sequences from more than 3,000 beetle species and morphological data from more than 400 species to help provide a framework for future research into beetle systematics, ecology and evolution. Beetles comprise the largest single branch in the Tree of Life. More than 350,000 species have been identified, and they are thought to impact many habitats more than any other insect group except possibly ants.

Maier said the trip to collect the Redford beetle was "especially exciting for me because I enjoy working on water beetles and at the time, I was only working on metallic wood-boring beetles."

The beetles were hard to spot at first, Maier recalled.

"We got to the spring, and I think that we must have searched for almost 20 minutes before we found a single one," she said. "None of us really knew exactly what kind of search image we should have, nor where exactly we should be looking.

"I guess that it didn't help that there were people bathing not 50 feet away from us," she continued. "Anyway, we finally spotted one. Imagine spotting a one-millimeter-long beetle in green algal goop on an almost vertical rock face. Then there they were, in the hundreds."

Ivie said the three entomologists captured the dark brown beetles while skinny dippers watched from below. The beetles were eating green algae through sheets of water flowing over the rocks. The water where most of the beetles were found was 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

The scientists originally thought they had captured a beetle that had already been named, but they started investigating after noticing that the beetle lacked the fully developed wings they expected to see, Ivie said. With the help of David Maddison from the University of Arizona (now at Oregon State University), they compared DNA and body structures with the beetle's relatives in southern Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona and Mexico.

Johnson said the Redford beetle is a much darker brown than material he has collected from California. The entomologists also learned that the Redford beetle lives farther north than members of its family anywhere else in the world.

Since their discovery, Johnson said his colleagues in southern Idaho have re-collected beetles at other isolated sites with Hydroscapha populations. The effort will provide DNA for future studies. Ross Winton, another former Ivie student, is mapping out other hot springs to explore.

Ivie said the entomologists keep looking for the Redford beetle in Montana, but haven't found any yet even though the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs are located near the Montana-Idaho border. They also haven't found the beetle below the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, causing the entomologists to joke that the Redford beetle - like the mountain man Jeremiah Johnson - shuns soap.

Humans, however, are no threat to the Redford beetle, Ivie emphasized.

"Beetles and bathers have co-existed there for 1,000 years or more," he said. "Continuous use is not a threat to the beetle."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or