Cash of the Titans

Research expedition

French Guiana

January 2019

mot mc.jpg

Photos from top to bottom:

1. The Cash of the Titans team: Chris, Laura and Eleanor

2. Titan beetle just caught and in a tub to be measured

3. Beautiful sunset on the Kaw river

4. Eleanor and Laura with a French collector, Guillaume, who gave us two titans that he caught the previous night

5. Our lodge kitchen transformed into a beetle area for observations

6. Two members of SAEG, Frank and Pierre-Henry showing Eleanor and Leif one of their automatic light traps

7. Laura and Eleanor holding a titan beetle

8. A dragonfly sat outside our lodge

9. Harlequin beetle that gave Laura a nasty bite.

10. Giant centipede caught by Leif

11. Chris, Leif, Mairika, Laura and Elanor having dinner

12. A snake lurking just outside the lodge

13. Mairika and Eleanor putting up the light trap

14. A rota for a particularly busy day

Filmed and edited by Chris Guggiari-Peel

Titan beetles are the largest-bodied beetles alive in the world today. And while oversized and ravenous invertebrates have long since been exaggerated in films, depicted as monstrous and carnivorous creatures, the first titan that we caught was certainly no disappointment in comparison. The largest titan that has ever been recorded was almost 17 centimetres long, and as we found out when Eleanor pounced on ’Munchy’ (15cm) on our third night light-trapping, it is not just their size that makes them so intimidating. Their six jagged legs, each with a razor-sharp hook on the end, jerk back and forth in unison as the head swipes left to right. They have eyes that extend around their head and of course giant pincers that continuously scythe open and closed, with enough force to slice your fingers to the bone. Handling these insects is not for the faint hearted as they do not cease and are also deceptively strong.

Unfortunately though, this is why our team of three travelled to the Kaw mountains in French Guiana. If you want to find the largest, or most venomous, or most peculiar invertebrate, this is the place to go. Being in the EU and having good roads made it relatively simple for Eleanor, Laura and myself to reach the eco-lodge where we were based for two weeks. Although only an hour by car away from the capital, Cayenne, no phone signal or contact with the outside world contributed to our complete immersion in the Amazon rainforest. We had come to catch titan beetles, and by tagging and tracking their movement through the undergrowth, we aimed to be the first to collect data that could shine a light on their behaviour. Why we chose such an amazing but mysterious species is linked to the reason that we chose our expedition location: what is the titan beetle’s place within the global invertebrate trade and how can research and new regulations mitigate the trade’s potential harm to the wildlife.

Aside from the bullet ants, giant centipedes and plethora of snakes living literally in and around our lodge, our main concern was failing to catch a titan beetle. They can only be found at a particular time of year during the wet season and their presence is also affected by the moon cycle. Our first two nights light trapping were fascinating as we observed the amazing diversity of insects amassing the sheet illuminated by special UV bulbs. But, no titans appeared. Typically, titans don’t fly and land on the sheet like most of the other insects do, you must stay vigilant throughout the night to listen for a thud as they emerge out of the night and crash to the ground nearby. Overall out of seven nights, we were successful on three occasions, catching and releasing seven titans in total.

Our mood changed instantly upon catching the first titan. We had relief that our project could succeed but also, we knew that this is where things would get more difficult. Once we had managed to glue our 1g bespoke radio-tags to the three titans that we had caught that night, we only had an hour respite before going back out into the rainforest to track them. However, things did not proceed as we had hoped, as is the nature of such novel research. Some tag signals disappeared, possibly due to the beetle flying outside our relatively short telemetry range or maybe just the failing of the tiny batteries. One signal went haywire making it impossible to locate. Several tags became dislodged as the beetles crawled through the thick undergrowth. By good fortune, considering that we only had four of these expensive tags, we located these after much hunting in the undergrowth to reuse. One other unexpected issue to work around was other people using the same light-trapping (and release) site. On returning to the site to measure the distance that the first three beetles had travelled during the daytime (about 30cm) we met a friendly Frenchman just setting up. He was interested in our work and was kind enough to keep two of the four titans that he subsequently caught that night for us, but this highlighted the folly of our original plan.

After much debating about the pros and cons of releasing the other beetles away from light -trapping sites at a new secluded location, and with the advice from a local long-horned beetle expert, we started to gather movement data. We had also decided to conduct a behavioural observation experiment with the beetles in our converted lodge kitchen to acquire pre-release data. Taking it in turns to observe the movement, or lack thereof, for five minutes every hour for twenty-four hours, allowed us to see at what times of day these creatures were active. Using red filters on the light bulbs to enable us to view the titans without disturbing them through intense thunderstorms in the night was a surreal experience. We observed two different beetles for two twenty-four-hour periods in total, revealing concentrated activity such as crawling, climbing and flying during the early hours of the day.

By about seven days into our fieldwork we could not afford the luxury of being either diurnal or nocturnal. Between us, we were simultaneously completing our hourly observations, light-trapping for eight-hour night-time stints and venturing into the forest every three hours to locate the released beetles. Meanwhile, I was also trying to film our trials and tribulations to show how our expedition had morphed into a gruelling combination of The Shining, Jurassic Park and I’m A Celebrity. For me, the most daunting task was attempting to track the beetles, especially after 6pm when the jungle and its inhabitants wake up. Trying to snatch thirty minutes of sleep between each behavioural observation of my 8pm-midnight stint was not aided by the thoughts of marching out into the thunderstorms and onwards into the trees at 3am. I did not try to hide my relief when Laura and Eleanor, back early from their midnight shift, announced that they finally agreed with me that it was just not safe to track after dark. Laura had very nearly stepped on a snake and even these two foolhardy ecologists concluded that risks had their limits. Titans do not stick to the paths, and if it was impossible to walk far on these without confronting deadly wildlife, I winced at the idea of obediently following the beep of the radio signal off into the undergrowth.

The quiet times when we could relax in our lodge hammocks during the mornings were most welcome. From this sanctity I could watch the hummingbirds flitting between the rainbow of flowers whilst reading my book. Leif however, one of the resident student ecologists, regularly chose these moments to show us the latest creature that he had caught infiltrating the camp. The most unlikable of these, that even Eleanor could not sincerely describe as ‘cute’, was a giant centipede. Known for having one of the most painful bites in all of nature, and found in the Mairika’s bath towel, I found myself beginning to feel fond of our titans. Titans at least are somewhat predictable, and I would certainly prefer holding Munchy than a wriggling centipede. I would even say that, compared to some of the critters that we saw like assassin bugs and bullet ants, I can start to understand why titans are so coveted by collectors and thus why people go to such endeavours to catch them. We must be of the very small minority of people to have caught but then released titans. As of our trip in January 2019, it was perfectly legal to do so and to transport and sell them in the EU for hundreds of pounds. But partly due to our growing fondness of our titan, not helped by our naming of them, and because of the overarching aim of our ‘Cash of the Titans’ project, profiteering from these insects was unthinkable for us.

In the end, we can be happy with what we achieved on our expedition. I am happy to have survived; Eleanor fulfilled her dream of catching and handling a titan, and Laura found our investigations into the insect trade fascinating. If we were to repeat the research in the future, and we hope others do, we know that better tags and glue are required, and new technology is making this possible. Although it is thought that titans are widespread in the north of South America and much of their habitat is unreachable by collectors, our actions could still threaten the species. After seeing them up close, both dead and alive, I understand the almost gothic attraction to these alien-like bugs. But I am happy to see that soon new protections will come in that will limit our effects on their population. It was a shame that we could not track a titan to the unknown species of tree that is thought to house the monstrous larvae, but it might be for the best. Heightened exposure of these creatures might increase the demand for them and the knowledge of where to harvest their larvae from might have an even more damaging effect. Titans are hard to find, and I am glad of that. Although a better understand of a species’ natural history should help us protect them, maybe we are best not looking for them in the first place.  

Filmed and edited by Chris Guggiari-Peel