Curiosity about the natural world led Entomologist Dr Chris Reid to a museum job at age 12, kicking off a lifetime of research

In this episode, AM Executive Director and CEO Kim McKay chats with Chris about the decline of Christmas beetles, studying leeches in an igloo on Lord Howe Island, and the 6.5 million insect species held in the AM collection.

"I love beetles but I prefer The Stones. Maybe I should have been a geologist."

Kim McKay: Hi, I'm Kim McKay, and welcome, listening again on AMplify, our special podcast from the Australian Museum. And today I'm speaking with one of our great research scientists, Dr Chris Reid, who is an entomologist with the Australian Museum Research Institute. Welcome along, Chris.

Chris Reid: Thank you, hello.

Kim McKay: Now Chris, you have such an interesting life because you get to go out in the field and work with those creatures which sometimes are annoying but sometimes we love in Australia, beetles. What got you interested in beetles?

Chris Reid: I think it was a general interest in natural history right from go. My mother has a photograph of me when I'm about 18 months, examining a piece of grass or something in front of my face, looking vaguely interested. I was actually far more interested in other things. And then when I went to secondary school I found there was a boy older than me who was already studying the insects that I wanted to study, and so I looked around and I thought no one is looking at this group of beetles, so I'm going to work on those. And it sort of stuck.

Kim McKay: It just stuck?

Chris Reid: Yes.

Kim McKay: Beetlemania took over, literally.

Chris Reid: Beetlemania, but I was equally interested in fossils or archaeology, whatever. In fact we used to drag my brother, seven years younger, all around the archaeological sites of Ireland and he ended up being an archaeologist.

Kim McKay: Did he really? Oh good, we'll have to get him out too. Where in Ireland were you?

Chris Reid: Up in the north, near Belfast.

Kim McKay: Fantastic. Many beetles in Belfast?

Chris Reid: We lived out in a country town, and I had the great luck of being involved in a time when the museum in Belfast was moving into new buildings and they needed hands-on to move the stuff. So from the age of 12 I was a volunteer in the local museum, and I helped move everything. And then when it was all moved they said, oh, would you like to work during the summer holidays here, and we'll pay your train fare? And my first job was sorting Southeast Asian kingfishers, which I knew absolutely nothing about and I think they didn't know anything about either, so it didn't matter. And my second job was setting butterflies. It went from there.

Kim McKay: That's amazing. So since the age of 12 you've really worked in museums. Just staggering.

Chris Reid: I think working in a museum is something I always wanted to do.

Kim McKay: You've been here at the Australian Museum for 17 years I think, which is to a lot of people a long time, but that's sort of the nature of museums, isn't it, researchers come and because they are studying a large collection it's the place where they do their work.

Chris Reid: I think it takes a very long time to feel that you're the master of the subject, and actually that's sort of an arrogant statement because I don't think anyone is ever the master of their subject. But with a museum collection you have vast numbers of specimens. You have this great history of the collecting as well. Being in a museum is a fantastic way of really getting to know a subject. And yes, you're right, it takes a very long time.

Kim McKay: So how many beetles do we have in the collection here at the museum?

Chris Reid: I don't know how many beetles exactly but I know we have estimated 6.5 million insect specimens.

Kim McKay: That's a lot of insects.

Chris Reid: The problem with the numbers is that a lot of our materials are still unsorted in alcohol, so we don't really know exactly how many we've got.

Kim McKay: Amazing. In recent times you've come to the public's attention I think because you've said quite a few things about a beetle that is well loved in Australia, the Christmas beetle. Growing up in Sydney, of course we had hundreds of them attached to the flyscreen at night, swarming around for the light, and it was part of Christmas, just like Christmas bush there were Christmas beetles. And everyone now says what's happened to them? Has something happened to them?

Chris Reid: I think something has happened to them and it's two things that have happened to them. One is the cities like Sydney have spread and they've spread particularly over agriculturally better land, which is the classic habitat of most of the Christmas beetles. So the western suburbs of Sydney are occupying the best habitat for Christmas beetles. So those beetles are no longer flying into the lights, they've gone.

And I think the other thing is…I was asked about this recently…the other thing is we've had a succession of very hot, dry springs, and I normally see about 30 to 50 specimens of Christmas beetles at the lights where I live in the Illawarra throughout November and December, and those have disappeared in the last three years. So I suspect this climate change is having an effect on Christmas beetles, mainly because their life cycle involves the larvae living for long periods of time in the soil, and with drought the soil dries out and perhaps there's not enough moisture, perhaps the larvae dies or can't get out.

Kim McKay: So you've brought in some different specimens and different species of Christmas beetles. Can you tell me what they are?

Chris Reid: Well, I brought in three different classic Christmas beetles. So we've got the absolutely bog-standard slightly metallic brown Christmas beetle, which is the one that you're talking about.

Kim McKay: It's very gorgeous though.

Chris Reid: Yes, it's got the lovely subtlety, the play of metallic colours. And then we've got a rarer species which is a deep brilliant metallic green. This one was actually known as the king beetle.

Kim McKay: It is very large, isn't it. I mean, if you found one of those…it looks just like an Egyptian scarab.

Chris Reid: Yes, well, Christmas beetles are related to scarabs, so that makes sense.

Kim McKay: Well, there you go! How insightful.

Chris Reid: Maybe you could get a job here.

Kim McKay: Could. Oh, I have one.

Chris Reid: And the other one is a relatively rare species that feeds on tea trees along river banks. So not all of them are common species coming to street lights, some of them are quite rare and habitat restricted.

Kim McKay: So what function do they play in our ecosystem?

Chris Reid: The adults feed on leaves. So they can be pests, they can strip leaves off trees, especially eucalyptus. So some of them are regarded as major pests. The major research on Christmas beetles was done by CSIRO in the '50s and '60s because they were implicated in dieback in the New England tableland. They also destroyed plantations of native eucalypts up in northern New South Wales. Also the larvae are feeding in the soil, feeding on roots, so they can be pests of especially grass roots like sugarcane in Queensland. So I'm portraying a negative picture of them a bit, that they are largely pests. I suppose the cultural interest in them is positive. And of course all insects, if they are in the environment they are pooing, they're producing food for a bird, they are all in there doing something, they're not useless.

Kim McKay: What defines a beetle from other insects?

Chris Reid: Beetles are insects that have an intermediate stage between the baby, the lava, and the adult, so they have a pupa, but that's like butterflies and wasps. They also have the front wings hardened as a thickened protective shield for the wings. And this means that the adults often can live for a long time because their wings are not going to get tattered. The butterfly only has a relatively short lifespan because once the wing is damaged, that's it, it's kaput. With the beetles, the hind wings are folded up under the forewings, they are protected, and therefore they can live a long time. And another thing is they control their breeding system. With that cavity formed by the hardened forewings and the abdomen, the breathing tubes face into that cavity, that means they can control moisture content and temperature to some extent.

Kim McKay: So they are really a very clever little species.

Chris Reid: 'Clever' is sort of an anthropomorphism, but yes, they are just particularly well adapted to different environments. This control of their moisture, for example, means that there are many species in the desert.

Kim McKay: I know that in Australia there are…what, how many species of beetle across Australia?

Chris Reid: Again, we're estimating, so we're talking 50,000 perhaps, species.

Kim McKay: Overall?

Chris Reid: Yes. So far more than all vertebrates put together.

Kim McKay: Absolutely. Now, you've done a lot of work recently, haven't you, up in Papua New Guinea. What have you been doing there?

Chris Reid: I've been involved with a DFAT funded project to capacity build. Our host organisation is the National Agricultural Research Institute, and I've been teaching entomology, but particularly crop and forest entomology. And most of the people we are dealing with are people who are coming from different government or non-government agencies involved with crops.

Kim McKay: It's one of the interesting roles of museums, isn't it, not just to study an animal but also to share that knowledge with other communities, and it can play a significant role in in terms of that information in stopping the invasion of pest species and managing situations, can't it.

Chris Reid: Yes, very much. Some of the people we are teaching are from their quarantine agencies, and I also work with quarantine agencies here. Quarantine is a big issue. I've actually brought a small box of the little tiny beetles. Those are a major pest of beans. They look very similar to many other species that are not major pests. So being able to say 'this is the pest and this isn't the pest' is a major problem.

Kim McKay: In that time you've been at the museum, what's been the most exciting thing that's happened to you here?

Chris Reid: I think probably the work on Lord Howe Island.

Kim McKay: For those people listening who don't know Lord Howe Island, it's about 700 kilometres north-east of Sydney, sitting in the Tasman Sea, and it's World Heritage listed, it's dominated by two mountains, Mount Gower and Mount Lidgbird. And didn't you spend a while sitting on the top of one of them?

Chris Reid: I spent a week in the igloo that's up on the top there for researchers, spending a lot of time picking leeches off the inside walls every day. It rained absolutely every day, it absolutely poured, but it was a fantastic place.

Kim McKay: It is, it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. In fact I know people who say it's the most beautiful of all the Pacific Islands.

Chris Reid: It's got the major advantage of never having been discovered by indigenous peoples and only being settled in the settled in the 1820s. So, largely the subtropical rainforest that you're looking at is intact, and that's extremely rare.

Kim McKay: It is, and it's breathtaking. And also I think it's one of the southernmost coral reefs in the world.

Chris Reid: Southernmost coral reef, yes. There is actually a species of beetle in that coral reef. Not one that I found but there is one, yes. The terrestrial fauna, the beetles of Lord Howe are also fantastic. Two-thirds of them…I've put together a list, there are 525 species just from that island, and two-thirds are unique to that island.

Kim McKay: And this is an island that's only a kilometre wide and 11 long.

Chris Reid: Yes. A fantastic place.

Kim McKay: It really is. It's a bit like Jurassic Park, isn't it.

Chris Reid: Sort of, except the island is only 7 million years old, it's a little bit younger.

Kim McKay: Yes, but it's wonderful to visit, and certainly for the Australian Museum we've been researching up there since the 1800s, so we've got a lot of data on the species of Lord Howe Island and also the coral reef situation there, so we will be revisiting that in the future too. So I think you might get to go back and sit in that igloo.

Chris Reid: I'm hoping so. Maybe I'll skip the igloo. I'm sort of more about creature comforts now.

Kim McKay: Yes, well, I think there are nicer places to stay there now.

Chris Reid: I'll send the technician up there.

Kim McKay: Good idea, a younger trainee. Chris, we could actually talk all day about beetles because we've got so many of them here to talk about, and because you've had so many adventures as well, not just here in Australia on Lord Howe Island but many different parts of the world. So for next time, maybe we can talk a bit further. Just one last question; do you give the beetles names at all?

Chris Reid: Yes, I do.

Kim McKay: Is there a John, Paul, Ringo and George?

Chris Reid: No, sorry, I never really liked The Beatles, I always preferred the Stones. Maybe I should have been a geologist.

Kim McKay: Maybe you should have. Boom-boom. So entomologist Dr Chris Reid, not just an expert in his field or a master we should say in entomology but also a bit of a comedian as well. Fantastic to have you and talk to you today, and thanks for sharing these insights into these really beautiful creatures.

Chris Reid: Thank you very much.