Nathan Lord: Understanding color in jewel beetles

As a child, Nathan Lord enjoyed going outside and collecting insects. Beetles were his favorite.

“I always liked the beetles — I think because they were the hardiest, and when I would collect them, I didn’t destroy them as easily as you would if you tear up a butterfly’s wings, a dragonfly’s wings,” he said. “I could catch a lot of beetles because there were a lot around.”

Lord noticed something else special about this group of insects.

“The sheer diversity of forms and colors and armatures, whether it’s horns on the head or spots or tufts of hair … always sort of captivated me,” said Lord, who today is an entomologist with the LSU AgCenter.

Lord studies the significance of this wide range of physical appearances. He focuses on the evolution of color and vision — particularly in a unique group of insects called jewel beetles.

While many insects are tiny and drab in color, jewel beetles stand out. They’re larger and can be found in a rainbow of iridescent tones.

“That’s the question: Why are they colored this way?” Lord said.

In the animal world, color and other visual cues play important roles, such as camouflage, helping identify mates and providing warning defenses. Because they’re so colorful, jewel beetles can offer insight into how physical structures produce different colors and how insects make use of them.

Lord also studies how insects perceive color. This area of research can shed light on what colors insects are attracted to and why — which is useful information in the fight against destructive pests such as the emerald ash borer that are collected using colored traps.

Two men looking at insects

LSU AgCenter entomologist Nathan Lord, left, and graduate student Able Chow discuss a collection of jewel beetles in Lord’s lab, Dec. 15, 2020. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

1/8/2021 6:55:24 PM
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