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Beetle takes on mythical hero’s name

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A new species of beetle has been discovered in Nova Scotia and it’s been named in honor of Glooscap, the mythical hero of the people of the Wabanaki Confederacy which includes the Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy and Maliseet peoples.

Since 2004, eight beetles new to science to have been identified by researchers here and all have been named to honor the people, the land or character of the area, says Chris Majka, a research associate at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax.

Pella glooscapi is the second in the series to have been given a name that recognizes Native culture in particular. The other is Euvira micmac which was named in 2007 for the Mi’kmaq people of Nova Scotia.

“Both Pella glooscapi and Euvira micmac were named in honor of the Native people here and their long traditions and knowledge of the natural world,” Majka said.

“They have a tremendous familiarity with many of the animals and the plants that are found here and have a spiritual kinship with them, so it’s an opportunity to honor that long connection by christening a beetle after Glooscap.”

In “Kitchi-Gami: Life Among The Lake Superior Ojibway,” first published in 1865, author and ethnographer Johann Georg Kohl noticed that everything in the Ojibway world was named, even “the most useless things flitting about.”

No doubt that keen connection to the natural world held true among aboriginal peoples across the continent, although sadly those names have often been lost because of efforts to eradicate Native languages.

Latin is the international language for naming plants and creatures. The scientific nomenclature doesn’t provide for apostrophes, which is why the spelling of Mi’kmaq is changed.

Majka said he doesn’t believe it’s common for scientific names to have an aboriginal connection. He said his colleague Jan Klimaszewski, of the Canadian Forest Service in Quebec who has researched beetles in the extreme north of Canada, said “there are at least a couple of beetles that he named that relate to Native people there. But I don’t get the impression that it happens that often.”

Majka said he grew up in New Brunswick, across the Bay of Fundy from Nova Scotia and has long been familiar with the stories about Glooscap.

Glooscap was said to have been a spiritual leader who bought the Mi’kmaq knowledge of fire, tobacco and canoes, among other things.

He was a creation figure of great size, responsible for the geographical features of the area. When he slept Nova Scotia was his bed and Prince Edward Island was his pillow.

“Very close to where these beetles were found, there are five islands,” Majka said, “and there’s a story that there was a giant beaver that dammed a river and flooded an area. ... In irritation, Glooscap threw mud and stones at the beaver to chase him off and those mud and stones landed in the bay and made the islands.”

He said a number of his Mi’kmaq friends and contacts have been pleased by the naming. “They think this is an interesting thing to do.” The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network did a story earlier this year on Euvira micmac.

The new beetle, Pella glooscapi, is just 3.5 millimeters long and was discovered by Dalhousie University graduate student Justin Renkema who was studying different kinds of mulch in highbush blueberry fields – to see which ones might attract beetles that are effective in keeping caterpillar populations down.

Majka and Klimaszewski determined that Renkema’s beetle was a species new to science and formally described and named it in a recently published paper in ZooKeys, an international scientific journal.

Research into beetles is a field rife with opportunity for discovery. Beetles are the most biodiverse group of any kind of animals in the world – there are more species of beetle than of any other kind of creature, Majka said.

“We continue to find new species, particularly amongst these smaller beetles.” How many species altogether? Well, we don’t know. “I think there’s something in the order of 400,000 plus species that have been described,” Majka said, but estimates of the total number of beetle species are in the millions.

An ordinary backyard on the Eastern seaboard could be home to several dozen different species, and Majka has found more than 500 species of beetle in Point Pleasant Park in Halifax.

“They’re highly diverse and very resilient. They are arguably one of the most evolutionarily successful creatures of all time and that’s one of the reasons they are ecologically so interesting, because many of them are hyper-super specialists on particular ecological niche.”

The British scientist J. B. S. Haldane once said that the Creator must have had “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

“And we are the richer for that,” Majka said.