DUBAI // In an office on the edge of Dubai sit 10 bugs, awaiting news of whether they are new to science.
The groups to which these creatures belong are familiar, to entomologists at least - shield bugs, a ladybird and a small camel spider, all found during a recent survey of insects and spiders at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. But the unique features that identify them within these groups are not.
"I can tell you what they do and what they had to eat," says Peter Roosenschoon, the conservation officer behind the survey. "But I can't tell you their names. They could be new species."
It will take some time to determine whether or not they are previously undiscovered.
"It's a long process," says Mr Roosenschoon. "If you don't find any visual records then you have to take it to people who are experts in the field, like universities within the UAE.
"If they can't identify it you send it to a central insect database in Switzerland. If they can't identify it there they go into greater depth with DNA testing and things like that to see if it's a new species."
Mr Roosenschoon will need to find three examples of each insect - two to submit to the experts, and one to keep.
Many different species of arthropods, the group that includes insects and spiders, live in the UAE, but remarkably little is known about them.
"There are not really a lot of experts so we are struggling to get information," Mr Roosenschoon says. "There are a lot of things that still need to be done in the field. There are a lot of people doing it but more at the amateur level."
He hopes to help to correct this dearth of knowledge, his main aims being to determine which arthropods live in arid desert environments and which are absent in particular areas, and discovering which prefer hotter or colder weather.
For 12 months, he has focused on five key species - the churchyard beetle, Arabian darkling, urchin beetle, rack beetle and firebrat - recording their preferred habitats and varying population densities.
The rack beetle is most often seen during the warmer parts of the year, burying itself deep underground in the winter months and becoming dormant.
Its prey, and that of many other beetles, is the firebrat, a silverfish-like bug that was found wherever rack beetles were.
The churchyard beetle, which secretes a foul smell when disturbed, showed a large increase in numbers during the winter, unlike most species of beetle which are more active in the warmer months.
The Arabian darkling, for example, was rarely seen during the winter. It showed no preference for a particular habitat or vegetation type, and was observed feeding on other beetles, lizards and even a gerbil.
The urchin beetle was most active at night and its preferred habitats were gravel and sandy plains. When threatened, this species buries its head in the sand and brandishes its spiky, hardened forewings.
Mr Roosenschoon has so far collected 212 species from the reserve, which covers 225 square kilometres - nearly 5 per cent of Dubai's total land area. It supports hundreds of species, including rare mammals, reptiles and birds.
He set traps in various types of terrain, including gravel and sand plains, ghaf forests, sand-dune valleys and former camel and date farms. Light traps were used to attract moths, while other specimens were caught with pitfall traps, by hand or with a net.
Mr Roosenschoon is about to publish his findings, and intends to complete a second survey before the end of summer.
"The new phase will be more intense - there are about 100 sites and I'll be looking at range, diversity and abundance," he says. "I expect to see different species and different habits in the summer."
Some might be surprised to find such an abundance of insects in the desert, but in fact many are ideally suited to the arid conditions as they do not need to drink water.
"They get moisture from their food and also the dew," Mr Roosenschoon says. "Some of the wasps, like the Arabian bottle wasp, sit in the water but they don't drink it.
"They take the potassium out of the sand, because the water dilutes the potassium and minerals. So you'll find a lot of insects at the water holes but they don't drink."
Over the centuries, many non-native species have found their way to Dubai on trading ships.
"With a lot of insects that are on the reserve, if you don't find any local literature on them you just refer back to the countries where the fresh produce came from," Mr Roosenschoon says. "There are a lot of species that you'll find in foreign books, especially from India and Pakistan."
The survey has been welcomed by wildlife enthusiast Ajmal Hasan, who makes regular photography trips into the desert from his home in Sharjah.
"There's so much stuff out there - arachnids and insects, that need to be documented and researched more, but it's not happening," he says. "Peter Roosenschoon is plugging the gap for the reserve, but generally proper field work is lacking. Insects have an amazing array of disguises and camouflage and they are essential for life, without pollination by bees we wouldn't be here. Insects play a critical role and the UAE has some beautiful species."
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