Field of Science

Darklings, Tok Toks and Pie-dishes

False wireworm beetle Gonocephalum sp., copyright EBKauai.

It has been noted to the point of cliché that the Creator has an inordinate fondness of beetles. Even within the massive range of beetle diversity, though, certain families stand out as particularly diverse. One such family is the Tenebrionidae, with over twenty thousand known species worldwide. The family is sometimes referred to as the darkling beetles but no one vernacular name is really sufficient for this group. Not only are tenebrionids taxonomically diverse, they are morphologically diverse, varying from long-legged and elongate to hemi-spherical and robust, from smooth and shining to ornate and hairy, from dull-coloured and retiring to bright and striking. Habits vary from detritivorous to xylophagous (feeding on decaying wood) to herbivorous to mycetophagous, with even a few predators. Larvae of some species are of economic significance as pests: the false wireworms feed on the roots of crops or lawns, while mealworms and flour beetles attack stored products (mealworms are, of course, also used as pet food and occasionally even as human food). Several species live as inquilines of social insects such as ants or termites. The highest diversity of tenebrionids is in relatively arid regions; some species, such as the tok tok beetles of southern Africa and the pie-dish beetles of Australia, are familiar sights in such habitats.

Pie-dish beetle Helea sp., copyright Australian Museum.

With such high diversity, it is not easy to define this group without encountering exceptions, but generally tenebrionids have the antennae eleven-segmented and inserted below lateral expansions of the genae. The procoxal cavities are usually closed externally, and the legs of most species have a 5-5-4 tarsal formula. The first three sternites of the abdomen are fused (Kergoat et al. 2014). Several subfamilies are recognised, but they are commonly grouped into three clusters known as the lagrioid, pimelioid and tenebrionoid branches of the family (Matthews & Bouchard 2008). Many members of the lagrioid and tenebrionoid branches possess well-developed defensive glands in the abdomen. The rear sternites of the abdomen in these species are hinged on the sides rather than along the midline as in more primitive forms, allowing the abdomen to expand as the gland reservoirs fill with a repugnant fluid that can be expelled when required. Many larger tenebrionids have a tendency to walk with their rear ends tilted upwards, ready to unleash at a moment's notice.

Allecula rhenana, copyright Stanislav Krejčík.

Members of the pimelioid branch, including the subfamilies Pimeliinae and (possibly) Zolodininae, lack abdominal defensive glands. In many parts of the world, pimelioids are the dominant tenebrionids in dry habitats. The lagrioid branch includes the single subfamily Lagriinae, defined by features of the genitalia. Matthews & Bouchard (2008) also listed the small subfamily Phrenapatinae in this branch but a molecular phylogenetic analysis of the family by Kergoat et al. (2014) placed this latter subfamily in the tenebrionoid branch. The tenebrionoid branch also includes the Tenebrioninae, Diaperinae, Alleculinae and Stenochiinae, though monophyly of the Tenebrioninae and Diaperinae is uncertain (Kergoat et al. 2014). Diaperines include a number of shiny, sometimes strikingly coloured species; members of the tribe Leiochrinini look more like ladybeetles of the Coccinellidae than typical tenebrionids. The Tenebrioninae include such notable members as the false wireworms of the tribe Opatrini, the mealworms of the Tenebrionini and the flour beetles of the Triboliini. Finally, the Alleculinae are a distinctive group of often relatively soft-bodied tenebrionids readily distinguished from other members of the family by their pectinate claws; in some older classifications, alleculines were treated as a separate family of their own.


Kergoat, G. J., L. Soldati, A.-L. Clamens, H. Jourdan, R. Jabbour-Zahab, G. Genson, P. Bouchard & F. L. Condamine. 2014. Higher level molecular phylogeny of darkling beetles (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae). Systematic Entomology 39: 486–499.

Matthews, E. G., & P. Bouchard. 2008. Tenebrionid Beetles of Australia. Australian Biological Resources Study.


  1. It strikes me as rather perverse to given subsets of a family names ending in -oid.

    1. Not really. '-Oid' as a suffix just means 'resembling', as in humanoid.

    2. I am, of course, familiar with -oid as a general suffix, but I nevertheless think it's perverse to use it in a context where it's apt to be confused with a more specific sense.


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