Stag Beetles: Gladiators of the Insect World

Insect Museum of West China

Beetles Around the World, Zhao Li, 2008/2017, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

More than 400,000 species of beetles have been discovered so far. However, all vertebrates on this planet add up to only less than 44,000 species. The colors of beetles span almost all the colors that human brain can imagine and that our eyes can observe. These small armored creatures come in a multitude of colors, appearances, and sizes with vastly varying habits.

Stag Beetle Sculpture, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The stag beetle is a striking variety of beetles belonging to the Lucanidae family of the Coleoptera order. There are nearly 1,800 recorded species of family in the world, with more than 60% of them distributed throughout southeast Asia and 266 known species in China.

Lucanus laetus, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

Most stag beetles are popular and become featured in insect collections because of their large size, strange appearance, and ease of capture. As a famous ornamental insect, many collectors even keep them as pets. Almost all male stag beetles have a pair of large, mighty-looking "teeth" (known scientifically as the mandible). These exaggerated teeth resemble can openers.

Lucanus hermani, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The Chinese name for the stag beetle is "hoe-shaped beetle", derived from its Japanese name “kuwagatamuji”. "Kuwataga" in this case refers to the "hoe-shaped helmet crest" worn by Japanese samurai in ancient times. With their large mandibles and hard shiny bodies, stag beetles look like majestic warriors dressed in armor. Like a samurai, the stag beetle also likes to fight. Their large mandibles, equipped with sharp teeth, are their weapons. Although they rarely provoke other insects and stick to defending themselves against attacks, males will battle each other to impress females. The loser is tossed aside by the winner, but is seldom injured, thanks to their armor.

Prosopocoilus astacoides, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The stag beetle's Latin name, Lucanidae, is derived from the male's distinctive mandible. Ancient people called elephants and cows 'lucas' and 'lucanna' respectively. American entomologists believe that this may account for the origin of the family name Lucanidae. Another possibility originates from Italian, which refers to the stag beetle as 'Lucanians'.

Stag Beetle Collection, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

Most stag beetles have dark bodies, usually brown or any shade from dark brown to black, or sometimes with brownish red or yellow patches. However, some species can also be colorful and have a metallic shine.

Rainbow Stag Beetle, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The rainbow stag beetle (Phalacrognathus muelleri) native to northeastern Australia and New Guinea is a prime example. Their metallic-looking bodies reflect a beautiful rainbow-like shine and are arguably one of the most beautiful beetles in the world. It is therefore chosen as Australia's national stag beetle and all wild individuals are strictly protected.

Chiasognathus grantii, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The Chilean Chiasognathus grantii, commonly known as Darwin's beetle, is even more famous. It is said that Charles Darwin found it crawling out of a tree trunk and, out of curiosity, licked it to see what it tasted like. Hence it got the name “Darwin's beetle”.

Prosopocoilus giraffa(Specimen of the World's Largest Stag Beetle), From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The biggest stag beetle in the world is the Giraffe Stag-Beetle (Prosopocoilus giraffa) from the Philippines. Insect Museum of West China has specimen of a huge individual with a length of 12.3 centimeters, same as the one that won the Guinness World Records.

Lucanus laetus, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

As an ornamental insect, the amount of attention bestowed upon stag beetles is no less than that we give to more regular pets such as dogs and cats. Their ferocious appearance and domineering mandibles are fascinating.

In fact, humans have drawn pictures of the stag beetle from as early as 1460 AD. The scarab worshiped in European religious culture is actually the stag beetle, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. The stag beetle can also be seen in other art forms such as murals, sculptures, and paintings.

In ancient Greek mythology, the stag beetle was the infamous metamorphosis of a musician. According to Antoninus Liberalis (circa 150 AD), the famous Greek musician Cerambus was the very talented grandson of the sea god Poseidon. He invented the shepherd's pipe and was the first to be able to play the seven-stringed lyre, an instrument which resembled the head and mandible of the stag beetle. The nymphs, who lived in streams and trees, became enraptured by the sweet music he produced and helped him graze his flock. Pan, god of the forest, also favored him. He even suggested that the musician move his flock to Pan's own pastures to avoid the huge winter snowstorm that was coming.

But geniuses are always a bit arrogant. Cerambus did not accept Pan's kindness and even slandered the nymphs, goddesses who had offered him plenty of help and protection. First, he claimed that they were not the descendants of Zeus but daughters of Spercheus, the river god, and Deino, one of the wicked and terrible Grey Sisters. Next, he claimed that his grandfather, Poseidon, fell in love with the nymph Diopatre and transformed the other nymphs into poplar trees so he could court her without interference. Of course, these claims angered the nymphs and they let Cerambus' flock disappear in the blizzard and turned the rude musician into a stag beetle, letting it wander around the trees, only able to feed on sap and dead wood.

Therefore, in ancient Greece, children often caught these unfortunate little insects and shaved off their heads to imitate Cerambus' favorite instrument, the seven-stringed lyre.

Odontolabis cuvera (female), From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

Today, with humankind's deepened understanding of the world of beetles, the stag beetle is no longer just a religious "culture carrier", but has also been assimilated into our daily lives and even become an alternative pet loved by many.

Odontolabis cuvera, From the collection of: Insect Museum of West China

The little stag beetle has played, and still plays, a very meaningful role in human culture. However, it is precisely because of the love for this strange beetle, and the resulting global beetle mania, that the outlook for diversity preservation is glum.

In many parts of Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, stag beetles not only face death and poaching by local residents and smugglers, but are also threatened by adverse factors such as ecological damage and climate anomalies. This has led to a gradual reduction in its overall numbers and species diversity. Those with narrow habitat tolerance, especially, are on the verge of extinction. There are currently more than a dozen stag beetle species on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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