Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 28, 2018

A Wild Rover

So the autumn finally decides to feel a bit more like autumn, arguably taking a temporary swing towards the winter to come. Yet a few days before we were still extolling the virtues of rather more than a mere lingering warmth of a summer already quite distant – all Comma butterflies and dragonflies, bumblebees and even reptiles.

And there was another among this list of warmth loving animals, one that I’m always happy to renew an acquaintance with.  The rather ominously monikered Devil’s Coach-horse is a creature that stands out in the memory as one those that made a particular impression on me as a boy, like the little-finger-sized Emperor Moth caterpillars that inhabited the bramble-filled wasteground near where I lived and Slow-worm that used to frequent the garden.

The Devil’s Coach-horse, for the initiated, is a beetle (Ocypus olens) and a member of the huge family of Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae) with more than 60,000 species world-wide.  The 1000 or so that live in the UK account for around a quarter of the national beetle fauna.  Most are typified by a narrow, elongated body shape and short wings that, unlike other beetles, exposes a greater part of the abdomen.  The Devil’s Coach-horse is no different and at around 3cm long is also our largest species.  They are formidable looking creatures, equipped with powerful jaws with which they doubtlessly terrorise the smaller animals which may happen across their path and on which they feed.

The thing that perhaps really sets them apart and maybe can especially capture the imagination of an impressionable young boy, is the threat display exhibited when alarmed.  The abdomen is curled upwards and forwards scorpion style, as is more than ably demonstrated by the insect I encountered and photographed below.  They of course have no sting and are harmless to humans, but they do have quite an array of deterrents for any would be predators, from fluid issued from the mouth, to noxious chemicals produced by glands on the tip of the abdomen, to the releasing plain old fecal matter from the anus.  These latter qualities I was not aware of as a lad, but I’m sure that especially the last listed would only have served to enhance the appeal of these splendid little beasts.

Ocypus olens (scaled)

Devil’s Coach-horse (Ocypus olens). Copyright 2018 Ross Gardner.


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