Insects outnumber humans on Earth 200 million to one. And if all those insects were as big as the titan beetle, we humans would be in trouble. Luckily, most insects are small, averaging 0.1 to 0.78 inches (3 to 20 millimeters); although it hasn't always been that way.
In prehistoric times, insects grew to be as large as birds. In fact, many evolutionary biologists think that it was the evolution of birds that drove the giant insects of old to extinction. Fossils of insects resembling dragonflies have been found. The insects who died long ago had enormous wingspans, some as large as 2.5 feet (76.2 centimeters). They also had huge jaws and were probably vicious predators. Thankfully, these griffinflies, as they are called, went extinct a long time ago.
Today, insects don't grow anywhere near that size, but the specimen we'd like to introduce you to is the titan beetle – the largest beetle in the world!
What Is the Titan Beetle?
The titan beetle is a giant in the insect world. The titan beetle is a member of the Cerambycidae family, or longhorn beetles. Although it has been mistaken for a cockroach, it isn't a common insect like the cockroach. In fact, the titan beetle is the sole species in the genus Titanus and its Latin name is Titanus giganteus.
The largest recorded Titanus giganteus to date measured 6.5 inches (16.7 centimeters) long and was collected by entomologist Patrick Bleuzen in French Guyana. Titan beetles have strong mandibles that can snap wooden pencils in half and sharp claws on their legs to protect them from predators. And they hiss to warn off aggressors that are foolish enough to come too close.
Where Do Titan Beetles Live?
Titan beetles live in tropical rain forests in South America, so you are unlikely to see one dashing across your North American kitchen countertop. Despite their size and elusiveness, though, the titan beetle has a great many secrets. This beetle lives in some of the Amazon's hottest and most inaccessible tropical rain forests and only ventures out into the open when seeking a mate.
The larvae of this mysterious insect have never been found. Scientists believe the titan beetle grub feeds on decaying wood below ground until it reaches maturity. At that point, it bores out of the dead tree where it's been feeding. The large boreholes the grubs leave behind have led scientists to estimate that the titan beetle grubs are approximately two inches (5 centimeters) in diameter and up to a foot (30 centimeters) in length.
Interesting Facts About the Titan Beetle
Are Titan Beetles Dangerous?
These huge bugs hiss when threatened to warn off an attacker. If this fails, the titan beetle will defend itself with strong legs equipped with sharp claws that can tear through flesh, as well as using those lethal mandibles. Titans beetles have never been known to attack unprovoked, but they must be handled with care. Their sharp claws and strong jaws can do serious damage to human hands and fingers.
How and What Do Titan Beetles Eat?
Titan larvae are thought to feed on decaying wood below the ground and then spend just a few weeks as adults. An adult titan beetle who spent its adult life in captivity at Oxford University was active but did not eat any of the fruit or sugar water provided to him. It's suspected that, like some other insects such as the atlas moth and the black soldier fly, the titan beetle only eats as a larvae.
How Long Do Adult Titan Beetles Live?
Adult titan beetles only live a few weeks.
How Do Titan Beetles Mate?
When the weather is hot and humid, the male titan beetle flies around in search of a female. The female titan beetle attracts a mate by giving off pheromones, which are airborne chemical attractants. All beetles, including the titan beetle, reproduce sexually. Offspring are created by the joining of sperm from the father and eggs from the mother.
When a male titan beetle locates a female, he begins a very ritualized courtship. Once the beetles have mated, the male's sperm are stored in the female's reproductive tract and used to fertilize the female's eggs that develop. After mating, the male titan beetle flies off to seek out another female to mate with. He does not assist with raising his offspring. After the female titan beetle lays her eggs, she, too, leaves. The adult titan beetles lifespan is too short for them to care for their young.
How Are Titan Beetles Caught?
Male titan beetles are attracted to bright electric lights, so they are captured at night. Female titan beetles are sedentary and not attracted by bright lights, so they are rarely captured.
Are Titan Beetles Endangered?
The titan beetle, like so many other creatures of the tropical rain forests, is threatened by the rapid destruction of its habitat. Conservation efforts to save the tropical rainforests have become a focus in the United States. And because titan beetles are dependent on wood during their larval stage, it is not just the trees in the tropical rainforests that benefit from conservation efforts.
Ironically, what may save the titan beetle from extinction is the beetle's value to collectors. The female titan beetle stays in hiding, waiting for the males to come to her. Because of that, the female titan beetles are difficult to collect, but the males are easily trapped by locals and sold to collectors.
In fact, there is an entire industry based on titan beetle eco-tourism. Folks travel to the rainforests for sightseeing tours of the insect in its natural habitat, after which the participants can buy specimens. Some of the larger titan beetles collected can cost a collector up to $500. Thankfully, collecting the male titan beetles does not harm the overall population, as there are more than enough males to go around.
Are Titan Beetles Really the Biggest Insect in the World?
There really isn't much debate on the matter, so yes, the titan beetle is the biggest beetle in the world. If you are looking for other “big” insects, consider the giant walking sticks of Southeast Asia that can attain lengths of 2 feet (61 centimeters), or the New Zealand giant weta bug. Giant wetas are enormous bugs related to crickets and weigh in excess of 2.5 ounces (70 grams).
Goliath beetles are strong contenders for the title of biggest beetle, but they still come in several inches short at 4 inches (10 centimeters) although they weigh a whopping 3.5 ounces (100 grams).
Image via Flickr
The mysterious and mighty titan beetle is a giant in the insect world. The largest specimen collected was over 6 inches in length, although there are rumors of titan beetles growing to over 7 inches (18 centimeters). The titan beetle has a secret life as larvae, for to date none have ever been collected.
These mighty beetles have strong mandibles and sharp claws, but these are only used as a defense. The adult titan beetles are not predators; they are more focused on making love than waging war. In fact, adult titan beetles do not eat at all. In their adult form, titan beetles only live for a few weeks. They mate, create their offspring, and then die. They don't have time during that short lifespan to care for their offspring.
Titan beetle larvae feed off trees in the tropical rainforests where they live. Because their habitat is endangered, the beetles, too, are threatened by extinction. In an ironic turn of events, what may save the titan beetle is the tourism industry that has sprung about around the beetle's notoriety. Adventurers travel to the rainforests to see the titan beetles in their natural habitat and perhaps get the chance to capture and/or purchase a large titan beetle.
How to Help
Conservation efforts to save the tropical rainforests also benefit the inhabitants of those endangered habitats. You can help save the titan beetles, ensuring they don't become extinct like the griffinflies, by aiding conservation efforts.
Don't buy palm oil! Palm oil, found in almost half of all processed foods in the United States, is a key contributor to rainforest deforestation.
Choose environmentally friendly and responsibly sourced products. Avoid buying furniture made from threatened rainforest woods like mahogany, rosewood and ebony. Look for sustainable sources of wood when choosing hardwood flooring, and, if you can, support the human populations of these tropical areas by buying fair-trade goods. If people can make a living without having to cut down the rainforests, it will be better for our ecosystem, and for the titan beetle.
Featured image via Flicftitan beetlekr