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Salt Creek tiger beetle
Salt Creek tiger beetle in the saline wetlands near Little Salt Creek. (LJS file)

A rare little bug from the salt marshes near Lincoln has found its way into Jane Goodall's new book on how endangered species are being rescued from extinction.

Goodall, one of the world's most renowned scientists, is best known for her landmark studies with chimpanzees. But she also cares deeply about other species and their environments, including the Salt Creek tiger beetle.

Mitch Paine, a 21-year-old environmental economics major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will tell you all of this and much more about the celebrity conservationist.

Paine, also an intern with the mayor's green initiative program, said he was not surprised Goodall took an interest in the tiger beetle.

"She finds this very inspiring because this little beetle represents a piece of the environmental consciousness of the city," Paine said.

Goodall is no stranger to the state. She has lectured at Nebraska Wesleyan University and Doane College and has watched the annual sandhill crane migration along the Platte River, one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles.

In her book, the primatologist devotes about two pages to the rare tiger beetle, which was listed as an endangered species in 2005. The latest annual census found only 194 adults.

The long-legged, olive-green insect can be found only in saline wetlands on the northern edge of Lincoln and in Saunders County, south of Ceresco.

Goodall introduces the Salt Creek tiger beetle by writing:

"And of course, there can be no question of the importance of protecting an ecosystem and preventing the loss of biodiversity. Yet there are millions of people who simply 'don't get it.' Especially if the species concerned is an insect - 'Just a bug!'"

Goodall focuses on the controversy surrounding the tiger beetle after it received protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

She notes: "While many (Lincoln Journal Star) readers welcomed the decision, many others were shocked and horrified; some, too, were genuinely mystified."

In an interview, Paine said he struck up an e-mail correspondence with Goodall in 2007 after he heard she was writing a new book on endangered species. Published in early September, the book is called "Hope for Animals and Their World."

"I just told her about the Salt Creek tiger beetle and how it is really a good example of community conservation," he said.

Paine learned about the concept of community conservation through Roots & Shoots, an international program that encourages youth to help their communities and the environment.

Paine started a local Roots & Shoots group while at the Lincoln Public Schools' Zoo School in 2006. After he enrolled at UNL, he formed another one. By then he was familiar with the Salt Creek tiger beetle, having learned much of its history from one of the Zoo School's instructors, Leon Higley, an entomologist at the university. He asked Higley for an internship and has spent hours observing the insect as part of a behavioral study.

"I found the Salt Creek tiger beetle really fascinating," Paine said. "I stood on salt flats and watched them. It sounds like what Jane Goodall did. She watched chimps and we had Salt Creek tiger beetles."

Goodall had Paine do research on the Salt Creek tiger beetle, and, as part of that research, he sent her newspaper clippings. One of the things she found interesting, Paine said, were the reader comments about the tiger beetle. She included several in her book.

Two years ago, Goodall came to Lincoln and talked to Paine and other students at the Zoo School about the tiger beetle. He recalled she had some difficulty remembering the insect's proper name, calling it the Salt Lake tiger beetle and the Salt tiger beetle. Paine said he understands why: because she has so much on her plate.

Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer who has waged a personal crusade to save the tiger beetle, welcomed the international recognition for the insect.

"I think it's a very good thing to get all the attention we can on it and drum up public support for what truly would seem to be the least among us," he said.

Sartore, who lives in Lincoln, said the tiger beetle has been featured in National Geographic magazine and will be included in his new book, "Rare," which will be published in spring.

"Insects are some of the most important species on Earth," Sartore said, because they do so much for us, like pollinate crops and keep other insects under control. "They are critical to mankind's survival."

Having Goodall give attention to the tiny insect is a good thing and may help save it from extinction, Sartore said.

"Everybody respects Jane Goodall. She is a great researcher. She is a living legend. If they don't listen to her, I don't know who they are going to listen to," he said.

Higley said the international attention comes at a good time because of recent budget cuts at the university. He said there may not be enough money to continue the research work being done on the tiger beetle.

Paine said he hopes the inclusion of the Salt Creek tiger beetle in the book will bring more attention to on-going efforts to save the rare insect and to Nebraska.

"By reading this book they will be able to visualize that there are some things happening in the middle of the country - that there is this little beetle that represents a community."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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