Field of Science

Omorgus: A Beetle with a Taste for Hair

A group of Omorgus clambering over what looks like a scat, copyright Stephen Cresswell.

I still remember my first Omorgus. Pretty much as soon as I saw it in the pitfall trap, I knew that this was a different type of beetle from any I'd seen before. Large, knobbly, robust... it looked a picture of glorious ugliness. Which only made it all the more frustrating that, somewhere in the process of making it into the trap, this particular specimen appeared to have somehow lost its head. Without the ability to look it in the face, I might never know what I'd found.

It wasn't until later in the lab that I discovered my mistake: my beetle wasn't headless at all! Instead, the head was retracted back, hidden beneath the expanse of the pronotum (the dorsal shield of the first thoracic segment). And so I became acquainted with my first keratin beetle.

A similar Omorgus to the one I found, O. bachorum, to give some idea how I missed the head. Copyright Clare McLellan.

Omorgus is one of the handful of genera of keratin beetles, a group of relatives of the scarabs known as the Trogidae or Troginae (there has been some inconsistency as to whether trogids are treated as their own family or as a subfamily of the main scarab family Scarabaeidae). They have robust forelegs with large femora, and striate elytra that are often covered with tubercles and/or setae. Trogids vary in size from about half a centimetre in length up to three centimetres. They get their name of 'keratin beetles' from their unique diet: both as adults and larvae, trogids feed primarily on keratin such as animal hair. They are most commonly scavengers, feeding at animal carcasses (often arriving late in the process, taking the parts of the animal rejected as indigestible by other scavengers). However, they also feed on other animal foods such as insect larvae, eggs or guano, and some appear to be specialist associates of bird nests or animal burrows (Scholtz 1986). An Australian flightless species Omorgus rotundulus was found to have a gut full of other arthropods, particularly ants and termites, in quantities that lead to the suggestion that it might be an active predator rather than a scavenger (Houston et al. 2010).

An Omorgus chowing down on a dead lizard, copyright William Archer.

Earlier authors commonly treated all trogids as belonging to a single genus Trox, but more recent authors have recognised four or five genera in the family. Omorgus includes about 150 species (Strümpher et al. 2014) found mostly in arid regions. The most obvious feature separating Omorgus species from other trogids is that the pedicel (the second segment of the antennae) is attached to the scape (the first segment) subapically rather than apically. In all species but one, the scutellum (the little thoracic shield visible between the bases of the elytra) is hastate (shaped a bit like a spear-head, with a constricted base broadening out further down) rather than a more simple oval as in other trogids. The exception, T. batesi, is a South American species that is placed in its own subgenus Haroldomorgus. The remaining species are divided between two subgenera Omorgus sensu stricto and Afromorgus, distinguished by features of the male genitalia (Scholtz 1986). Afromorgus is found in Africa and Asia whereas the type subgenus contains the Australian and other American species.

Most trogids are fully capable of flight (many are attracted to lights at night) but, as alluded to above, a handful of species are flightless. In flightless species, the elytra become fused together into a sold carapace. The impression I get from scanning the literature is that flightlessness in trogids may not be so much a matter of conserving energy as it is of conserving water. For animals living on a dry diet in a dry habitat, such adaptations are only to be expected.


Houston, T. F., J. Zhang & B. P. Hanich. 2010. Diet of the flightless trogid beetle Omorgus rotundulus (Haaf) (Coleoptera: Trogidae) in the Little Sandy Desert of Western Australia. Australian Entomologist 36 (4): 207–212.

Scholtz, C. H. 1986. Phylogeny and systematics of the Trogidae (Coleoptera: Scarabaeoidea). Systematic Entomology 11: 355–363.

Strümpher, W. P., C. L. Sole, M. H. Villet & C. H. Scholtz. 2014. Phylogeny of the family Trogidae (Coleoptera: Scarabaeoidea) inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear ribosomal DNA sequence data. Systematic Entomology 39: 548–562.

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