August 20, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beetles! (the fire beetles, that is)

This week, during a mini-vacation to the Columbia Mountains, we got to watch the Prairie Hill Fire in Glacier National Park, a couple hours west of Lake Louise. On the same day we left for our trip, the B.C. Wildfire Service confirmed that the province of BC is experiencing the worst wildfire season on record. This is no surprise to visitors of the Rockies this summer: there have been a lot of smoky days, and lots of grumbling.

But fires are as natural as air and water in the mountains of western Canada. Everything from hummingbirds to grizzly bears thrive in the aftermath of burns, and the latest creature on this list that we've learned about is the fire beetle, Melanophila acuminata.

The fire beetle.
These are jet black beetles that manage to show up in large numbers during fires, where they mate and lay eggs in freshly burned trees.

Ecologists used to wonder how they managed to get to fires so quickly. The answer is amazing: Dr. William G. Evans, a retired prof at the University of Alberta, was the first to show that these beetles can detect infrared heat sources using paired receptors situated on the thorax. Apparently, they can detect the heat signature from a fire from over 50 km away!

We're guessing that there will be a lot of happy fire beetles out there this summer.

PS: if you're wondering about the smoke, it comes and goes, but we've never had more than a couple of days in a row of poor visibility before things clear up again.