A rare beetle named after Adolf Hitler is in danger of extinction because of its growing popularity as a neo-Nazi collector's item.
The tiny, brown, eyeless beetle, Anophthalmus hitleri, was discovered in 1933 by Oscar Scheibel, a German amateur entomologist and ardent Hitler fan, and is found in only around 15 caves in central Slovenia. Initially shunned by entomologists as not being of any particular scientific interest, it has been sidelined by museums wary of exhibiting anything with such a close connection to Nazi Germany. Now though, the "Hitler beetle" is so sought-after by right-wing extremists that scientists are worried it could disappear altogether.
Martin Baehr, a beetle expert at The Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, said: "There is a complete run on these creatures, and collectors are intruding on the beetles' natural habitat to get hold of them." With a perfectly preserved specimen changing hands on the international insect market for as much as Ł1,200, poachers will apparently stop at nothing to get hold of the arthropods.
The Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, a Munich-based research organisation that houses one of the largest natural history collections in the world, has had almost all of its Hitler beetle specimens stolen. The thieves, say experts, are not all Nazi sympathisers, but entrepreneurs wanting to cash in on the lucrative Nazi memorabilia market where SS signet rings can fetch hundreds of pounds and a Hitler autograph, thousands.
While no one is sure exactly what right-wing extremists are doing with their new-found brown, blind, six-legged friends (apart from hanging them on their walls) the Hitler beetle is not the first coleoptera to become a cult object.
The Japanese stag beetle is such a popular household pet in Japan that entire mountain ranges where they live have had to be closed to prevent poachers from hunting them down. Male varieties imported from abroad can fetch thousands of dollars.
Some beetles found in South America are so hardy that they do not feed during their final, adult stage of life - and with the help of a few gem crystals and a chain glued to a wing cover are turned into "living brooch" which will then scrabble - illegally, in most countries - over your lapel.
Slovenian biologists have already called for the closure of the caves where Hitler beetles live, to prevent amateur collectors flocking to the area each summer to hunt them down. Others have considered renaming the species to make the beetles less attractive to neo-Nazis.
Although the Hitler beetle is already protected under Slovenian law, and all insect collecting in the country is banned, poachers only have to make it the few miles to the Italian border, where insect hunting is still permitted.
If Anophthalmus hitleri does die out, it would mean the demise of the only creature on the planet currently named after the Nazi dictator. Rochlingia hitleri, a flying insect fossil named after Hitler in 1934 was already extinct at its christening.
Perhaps the beetle becoming extinct wouldn't be such a bad thing. Some biologists have suggested that Sheibel's naming of a blind beetle after the Führer was, in fact, an attempt to ridicule him. Such antics aren't unimaginable. Last year, three newly-discovered types of slime mold beetle were named after members of the current US administration: A bushi, A cheneyi and A rumsfeldi. All done with the greatest of respect, of course, claim the scientists at Cornell University, who named them.