Working with staphylinids, it has to be said, can be horrible. They are treated as one of the most diverse of the beetle families—perhaps the most diverse of all—but compared to other diverse families they attract relatively little study. The majority of staphylinids are usually either very small or soft-bodied, not uncommonly both together, making them difficult to prepare and maintain as dry specimens. For the soft-bodied species, with their reduced elytra, many of the easily visible features that can be so useful for other beetle groups are obscure or unavailable. They also tend to be drab in coloration, without much in the way of striking patterning. As a result, it is often impossible to identify staphylinid species without examining minute features of the appendages or the genitalia. Something to keep in mind as you read the following.
Species of the genus Philonthus are relatively large as staphylinids go, often about half a centimetre in length, but they are certainly not free of the problems affecting other members of the family taxonomy-wise. The genus is massively diverse—over 1200 species have been described from around the world. Attempts have been made to break them down into more manageable chunks, such as through the recognition of subgenera, but these have mostly failed to gain much traction. Most recent authors have only recognised informal species groups within the greater mass.
In general, species of Philonthus are smooth, without excessive hairs, and have labial palps with the last segment fusiform and about as wide as the penultimate segment (Tottenham 1955; Stan 2012). Males have the aedeagus (the intromittent organ of the genitalia) rotated in the abdomen so its paramere (off-branch) is located on the left side rather than ventrally as in other genera (Tottenham 1955). Some species may have a metallic sheen to their coloration; others are a plainer black or reddish. Species may also differ in the number and arrangement of setae on the pronotum.
Where their lifestyles are known, most Philonthus are associated with decomposing organic matter such as animal dung, compost or leaf litter. Some are predators of other insects and insect larvae found in such habitats (such as fly larvae); these species have highly developed senses to locate decaying matter, and are strong fliers to disperse to suitable habitats (Majka et al. 2009). Some species of Philonthus may act as predators of other pest insects, helping to keep their numbers down.
Majka, C. G., J.-P. Michaud, G. Moreau & A. Smetana. 2009. Philonthus hepaticus (Coleoptera, Staphylinidae) in eastern Canada: are distribution gaps distinctive features or collecting artifacts? ZooKeys 22: 347–354.
Stan, M. 2012. On the species of Philonthus Stephens (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae: Staphylininae: Staphylinini: Philonthina) in the collections of Romanian natural history museums. Travaux du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle "Grigore Antipa" 55 (2): 233–276.
Tottenham, C. E. 1955. Studies in the genus Philonthus Stephens (Coleoptera: Staphylinidae). Parts II, III, and IV. Transactions of the Royal Entomology Society of London 106 (3): 153–195.