Megacyllene comanchei revisited

On my recent trip, I reported finding the rarely collected Megacyllene comanchei at several localities in northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota. These are significant findings, since they not only represent new records for both states, but also an impressive 700-mile northern extension to the known range of the species (on top of a previously reported northern range extension from Texas into Kansas). The intriguing part of the situation is that these new records fall within the southern portion of the known distribution of M. angulifera, its closest relative, which has been recorded from several northern Great Plains states and provinces (although it has not yet been recorded specifically from Nebraska).

Upon reading about these findings, a friend and fellow student of Cerambycidae has expressed doubts to me about the distinctiveness of M. comanchei versus M. angulifera, regarding the slight color differences upon which it was based as insufficiently distinctive. In its original description (Rice & Morris, 1992, J. Kans. Entomol. Soc. 65:200-202), M. comanchei was distinguished from M. angulifera by a specific combination of characters, i.e., the premedian and sutural segment of the postmedian elytral bands are white, while the remaining pubescent bands are yellow. They also noted the subapical and apical bands often coalesce along the elytral suture and lateral margins. I do not have material of M. angulifera for direct comparison, but my specimens (two of which are pictured in this post) seem distinct enough from this specimen of M. angulifera pictured on Larry Bezark’s impressive website, A Photographic Catalogue of the CERAMBYCIDAE of the New World. In contrast, the pattern of coloration seen in this photo of the holotype of M. comanchei (also from that fine site) seems to agree well with my material.

Whether these color differences are significant remains to be seen. Neither species has been commonly collected, therefore large series of material have not been available for good comparative studies. However, there do seem to be significant differences in reported host plants and adult biology. Adults of M. angulifera are usually found in the fall on flowers of Solidago (goldenrod), and it was recently discovered that the larvae utilize root crowns of Dalea candida (family Fabaceae) for development (Blodgett et al. 2005). All but one of the remaining Nearctic species of Megacyllene for whom larval hosts are known also utilize fabaceous plants. These include M. robiniae and M. snowi (Robinia), M. decora (Amorpha), and M. antennata (Prosopis). A notable exception is M. caryae, which breeds in a variety of deciduous plant genera but most often Carya and is also unique in that adults occur during early spring instead of fall. Megacyllene comanchei, on the other hand, was discovered by examining the dead root crowns of Heterotheca sp. (family Asteraceae), with a few crawling on the ground in areas where such plants were growing. This is not proof that it serves as a larval host, but the repeated association of adults at the base of dead stems of this plant is highly suggestive. Additionally, no adults were encountered on goldenrod or other flowers, as is common among other members of this genus. The apparent utilization of a non-fabaceous larval host and behavioral difference exhibited by the adults seem to support its status as separate species. Again, the specimens that I collected agree not only morphologically with M. comanchei, but also behaviorally in that all of them (six specimens at three localities) were found crawling on the ground in shortgrass prairie rather than on flowers. I did note Heterotheca growing at one of the locations but did not find adults on the crowns of the few plants I inspected. I do not recall seeing any Dalea, but I wasn’t looking specifically for that plant either. Nor did I not see any goldenrod, which I would have certainly noticed had it been present.

So, for now, I’m inclined to continue calling these M. comanchei, and I’m also inclined to consider it distinct from M. angulifera. I do agree, however, that a critical examination of the distinctiveness of these two species might be warranted, and it may be worthwhile to pull together as much of the existing material of these two species as possible. I am interested in hearing other opinions about this situation.

Lucky 13

The last day in the field on an extended collecting trip is always bittersweet for me. Throughout the trip I keep a frenetic pace trying to see as much as possible – the more localities you visit, the greater your likelihood of success. But it’s exhausting – during the day if I’m not exploring an area I’m driving to another one, and in the evening I’m either cleaning up, restocking on supplies, entering the day’s data into the computer, or jotting down thoughts about what I’ve seen. I really love these trips, but eventually exhaustion catches up and my brain starts feeling overloaded by all that I’ve learned. If collecting hasn’t been good, I just want to be home. If collecting has been good, however, I almost have to tear myself away from the field. Either way, I have that long, monotonous drive staring me in the face. Yesterday, my last day of collecting on this trip, was supposed to be nothing more than a quick look at a few localities in or near the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills before undertaking that 10-hour drive. I had already succeeded in finding Cicindela limbata (sandy tiger beetle) in the western Sand Hills, but I wanted to locate one of these eastern Sand Hills populations because of the distinct reddish elytral coloration exhibited by individuals at this, their easternmost distributional limit (as opposed to the normal green in more western populations). I had also not yet seen C. denverensis (green claybank tiger beetle), a western relative of C. limbalis (common claybank tiger beetle) and C. splendida (splendid tiger beetle) that differs by its green rather than brick-red elytra. Despite driving long and getting to bed late the previous night, I got up early and headed for the sand dune locality, hoping I would find it quickly so I could then go to the clay location before dropping down through Grand Island to I-80.

The sand dune locality looked perfect for C. limbata – large, stabilized sand dunes with steep blowouts like those I had seen the previous day in the western Sand Hills. I looked around the first sand blow I came to, but the early morning sun still had not warmed the face of the blowout so nothing was out yet. I hiked over to the next blowout – a little larger, more barren, and facing the sun – but still no activity. I spotted another even larger blowout still further back and hiked over to it. Again, despite apparently perfect habitat and conditions I saw nothing. I started looking for potential burrows and digging them out, but every burrow dead ended in the sand. I wondered if it might be too early in the day still, although it just didn’t seem possible as it was now past mid-morning. I’d seen the adults in the western Sand Hills already burrowing back in to avoid the heat of the day starting around noon – they just must be out in the morning, I thought. I went back to the second blowout and searched again, then back to the first. I’d searched for over an hour by this point, and I was ready to accept that I hadn’t found the right site and to cut my losses and move on. But I vacilated and then decided I needed to give those second and third blowouts just one more look (Gayle Nelson and his persistence came to mind). Well, the third time was a charm! I saw two adults on the second blowout, and by the time I got to the third blowout I saw several individuals on the most barren portions of the blowout face. At this point, I was really really glad I hadn’t given up earlier (note to self – on future tiger beetle trips, time arrival at sand dune sites during late morning!). At first I thought a field photo would be impossible – they were just so alert, and their small size and white coloration made them difficult to see before alarming them. But again persistence paid off and after several attempts I ended up with about as fine a photo as I’ll ever be able to take. These delicate little beetles certainly rank as among the most beautiful I’ve seen on this trip.

Having just left the southern edge of the Sand Hills on my way to the second locality, I spotted this vertical clay bank just north of the North Loup River with a 2-track road following below it – that’s tiger beetle land, folks! I hadn’t walked in very far at all when I saw C. splendida on the 2-track – another species for the trip! I took a very routine swing at the beetle with my net, and while doing so stepped on the edge of a small drop and twisted my left ankle. My left leg buckled, leaving my weight on my right leg but in a wrong position, which caused my right knee to pop out (an old college injury). Now both legs buckled and I slumped onto the side of the 2-track – paralyzed in pain! I remember muttering to myself, as I lay there clutching both legs, “Oh, please let me be able to walk!” After what seemed like several minutes, I started trying to get up. I noticed my net laying on the ground and my next thought was, “I wonder if I got the beetle.” (I didn’t). I gradually got myself back up and found that I could walk – but only gingerly. My left ankle was definitely sprained, but my right knee seemed like it was okay. A more rational person probably would’ve said that was enough and called it a day, but C. spendida was here – I couldn’t just leave! I continued walking the 2-track and found good numbers of not only C. splendida, but also C. limbalis (very similar to C. spendida but with red on the pronotum). After collecting a small series of the two species (which took a while – I was swinging the net quite gingerly and missing many beetles because of my ankle), I started concentrating on trying to get some field photos. My success in photographing C. limbata earlier in the day had given me some confidence to make the attempt – again, they were extremely wary and hard to approach, but through repeated attempts and persistence I finally got a few photos of each that I was happy with (I especially like the one of C. limbalis demonstrating the “tip toe” position that members of this genus often assume, presumably for heat regulation). I noted considerable variation in the elytral markings on both species – ranging from the two fully maculated individuals shown here to individuals with the median elytral marking reduced to just a lateral hash mark. I also saw a few individuals of C. splendida with the pronotum a brilliant cobalt-blue (so-called form “cyanocephalata“, although it lacks any formal taxonomic status) but unfortunately was not able to obtain photos of these.

After hobbling back to the car, I made one more irrational decision – I still hadn’t found C. denverensis and decided to go to one more spot to look for it, even though doing so would probably mean arriving home after midnight that night. My ankle was seeming to be holding up okay, at least well enough on level ground, and I really wanted to see this species. Sometimes my singlemindedness knows no bounds. I drove to a spot a little further back to the west where I knew the species occurred – a minimal maintenance (i.e., “dirt”) road with a fascinating vertical clay bank on one side. I hadn’t walked more than 20 yds down the road when I saw C. denverensis on the edge of the road – species number 13 for the trip! The range of this western species overlaps with those of its close relatives C. limbalis and C. splendida in this part of Nebraska, apparently resulting in some hybridization between these species. This has caused some interesting patterns of variation in markings and coloration among the three species. The C. denverensis individual pictured here (again, persistence!) shows more complete elytral markings – like those of C. limbalis and C. splendida pictured above – but I also saw individuals with incomplete maculations as well as differing shades of green. Cicindela splendida was also present at this site (but, interestingly, not C. limbalis), and I was fortunate to get some good photos of this individual showing the fascinating habit of these beetles to fly up and crawl about on the vertical bank when alarmed – note the larval burrows also on this vertical bank. It still amazes me how the larvae of these species are able to secure any prey on these vertical surfaces! The individual pictured here also shows the reduced maculation I’ve talked about for this trio of related, clay-inhabiting species. Additional vertical clay banks could be seen stretching further down the roadside – they were tempting, but at this point I finally, grudingly said “enuf” and began the drive back towards St. Louis. I arrived home in the wee morning hours and breathed a sigh – the annual fall tiger beetle trip was officially over!

Sand Hills Success

Having explored the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota, it was time to turn my attention to the vast central Nebraska Sand Hills. My original plan was to leave the Pine Ridge area early in the morning and arrive at the western edge of the Sand Hills during late morning. This would provide plenty of time during the rest of the day to explore several western Sand Hills localities before traveling east the following day to look at some eastern Sand Hills sites. It is, however, the nature of these trips that plans change – sometimes on a whim – and such was the case Thursday morning. As I approached the left turn onto Hwy 385 that would take me down to Alliance, I made a impulsive decision to take another shot at finding the elusive Cicindela lengi (blowout tiger beetle). Recall that I battled rain and cool temps in my first attempt, and although I came away with several larvae of what I hope turn out to be this species (assuming I am successful in rearing them to adulthood), they also could represent one of the more common species. I questioned the wisdom of this move during the entire 40 minutes it took to drive to the spot – completely in the opposite direction of where I had planned to go that morning, but something in my gut told me to do it anyway. If I succeeded, the lost time and resulting need to adjust my plans would be worth it. I won’t delay the suspense – it was one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. I found two adults, and had I not known to expect this species at the site, I might have easily mistaken them for the much more common C. formosa (big sand tiger beetle). The two species resemble each other greatly in color and markings, but the subtle differences are unmistakeable once you’ve seen them in the field. I didn’t dare risk attempting a field photo – they were just too active, but I do have one of the specimens alive and will take photos of it later in confinement. Success would not end there – shortly after finding the first C. lengi, I saw an individual of the very uncommon C. nebraskana – another new locality for the species! Matt Brust will be very pleased to add yet another data point for the distribution of this species in Nebraska. Finally, as if to add an exclamation point on the success of this diversion, I found another specimen of Megacyllene comanchei (provisional ID – see previous post) – another locality for this new state record. As with the other five specimens seen on this trip, it too was found crawling on the barren ground rather than on goldenrod flowers as is typical of most other species of Megacyllene. Quite a successful detour it turned out to be.

Success has its price, and the time spent on this diversion meant that something would have to give. By the time I got back to Chadron it was already past noon, which meant I would not make it to the Sand Hills until mid-afternoon. My primary target for the Sand Hills was the gorgeous C. limbata (sandy tiger beetle), which lives on barren sand dunes and blowouts. My delayed arrival left only a few hours to explore these habitats – with no sign of C. limbata, but I did find a few more C. fulgida along the margin of a small alkaline lake that Matt had told me about. Rather than move on to the eastern Sand Hills the following day as originally planned, I decided to stay on the western side for another day – my last full day of collecting. It was another good move – with a full day to explore, I found several sites in the morning with C. fulgida, and in the afternoon I finally found the coveted C. limbata. I only saw one adult out and about, but that was enough to convince me to spend some time there. As I’ve noted before, sand-inhabiting tigers start digging by midday, so I started looking for suspected burrows and digging after them. Most of what I dug up at first were the common C. formosa (big sand tiger beetle), but after a bit I was able to discriminate between the burrows of that species and those of C. limbata. After a couple hours of work, I had a grand total of seven vivid white/iridescent green individuals to show for my effort! Again, I didn’t even attempt a field photograph – they were very active once dug up, so one individual is being kept alive for photographs later in confinement. This day would also end with a nice exclamation point – another C. lengi! My lesson in field discrimination of this species versus C. formosa payed off, as I instantly recognized it for what it was.

I’ve now made it to the eastern edge of the Sand Hills, where tomorrow morning I’ll be looking for a red population of C. limbata before finishing off the trip with (hopefully) finding C. denverensis (green claybank tiger beetle) in the clay soils just to the south of where the Sand Hills end. If successful, I will have succeeded in finding a total of twelve tiger beetle species on the trip (38% of the known Nebraska/South Dakota combined fauna). The extra time spent in the Pine Ridge area means I will have to skip the last two localities in northwest Missouri, but the success I had in Nebraska does much to ease the disappointment. With a 10-hour drive confronting me after I finish my collecting tomorrow, I suspect this will be the last of my trip updates. I’ll provide a wrap up and some more photos after I return home, but in the meantime enjoy this video of C. formosa digging in for a midday siesta.

Rattled in the Black Hills

My first day in the Black Hills of South Dakota was spent at McNenny State Fish Hatchery near Spearfish – on the north side of the Black Hills. I went to this place on the advice of my esteemed colleagues in Nebraska, who suggested that I might be able to find several interesting tiger beetle species there: the closely related trio of beauties C. denverensis (green claybank tiger beetle), C. limbalis (common claybank tiger beetle), and C. splendida (splendid tiger beetle) in the red clay eroded banks; C. fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) and C. tranquebarica kirbyi (oblique-lined tiger beetle) around the lakes; and – again, if I’m lucky – intergrades between the prairie and boreal long-lipped tiger beetles (C. longilabris x nebraskana) along a trail through the shortgrass prairie east of the hatchery. For the first time since Saturday, I awoke to baby blue skies which filled me with an optimism and anticipation that made the 3-hour drive from Chadron, Nebraska to Spearfish, South Dakota seem interminable.

What my esteemed colleagues failed to include on that list of species I might encounter was Crotalus viridis – the prairie rattlesnake! Now folks, I’ve seen a number of rattlesnakes before – mostly in Texas – but I’ve never heard this sound in real life, much less heard it coming from a rattlesnake poised to strike. I encountered this fellow in the eroded red clay slopes above the lake, and even though I wasn’t too terribly close it gave me quite a start (my bravery in taking this photo is vastly exaggerated by the twin miracles of telephoto and cropping!). I walked a little more cautiously afterwards but gradually let my guard down over time. About an hour later, I was startled again by another rattler – I had come within 2 feet of it before it started rattling. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and once I got my heart stuffed back down my throat I noticed several dark juveniles coiled up with her. They slunk away, and I tiptoed back to the car having had my fill of the red clay slopes for the time being.

I did manage some success on the slopes before the rattlers drove me away – not with the claybank and splendid tigers that I had hoped to find, which were largely missing in action save for two individuals of C. limbalis that I spotted amongst the annoyingly similar appearing and ridiculously numerous C. purpurea audubonii (clay path tiger beetle). Success instead came in the form of this cerambycid beetle – Megacyllene comanchei. Recently described from Texas, nothing more was published about this species until I recorded a northern range extension into south-central Kansas (MacRae & Rice 2007). Its occurrence in the Black Hills is not only a new state record for South Dakota but also represents an incredible 700-mile northern range extension – on top of the previous one! Actually, Matt and I each found one individual a few days ago in Sioux County, Nebraska (also a new state record) – I had thought of this species at the time but decided I must be wrong and that I should wait until I got back before making an identification. But the capture of these three additional individuals even further north renewed my suspicions, and consultion of my databases shows good agreement with this species – note the white rather than yellow antemedian elytral band and medial portion of the postmedian elytral band, along with the medial and lateral coelescence of the apical and subapical bands, which distinguish this species from the closely related M. angulifera. The records from this trip show that M. comanchei is much more widely distributed than previously thought. Curiously, all five of the individuals I’ve seen (so far!) were crawling on the ground – an unusual habit for Megacyllene, which are normally found on flowers of goldenrod. The type series was associated with plants in the genus Heterotheca, which I did note growing in the area.

After escaping the snake slopes, I began surveying the lake margins to look for potential tiger beetle habitat. I was especially interested in C. fulgida – Matt and I had seen a single individual along a dry salt creek in Sioux County. The lakeshore around the upper lake was completely surrounded by thick vegetation – no tiger beetles there, but when I arrived at the lower lake I found some small areas of open ground along one side. They didn’t look very extensive, and my initial search of the area showed no activity. Closer inspection, however, showed the presence of larval burrows, and when I grabbed my fishing gear (the nearest grass stem) I promptly managed to extract a couple of larvae. Okay, so there are tiger beetles here, but which one I don’t know – probably C. tranquebarica kirbyi, which we had seen rather commonly at the same dry salt creek in Sioux County. Although the sun would not set for another two hours, it was quite cool already. I wondered if maybe the adults had already started digging in for the night and began looking for evidence of adult burrows. I looked carefully along the edge of the grassline when I saw movement – it was the back end of an adult C. fulgida kicking dirt out as it excavated its burrow. Success! I dug it out, took a few photos (one shown here) and started looking for similar appearing burrows. I not only found several more C. fulgida in their burrows, but also several C. tranquebarica kirbyi. The larvae I collected may or may not represent one of these species – there are other species associated with alkaline habitats that active at other times during the season. I collected a few more larvae, filled a container with soil from the spot – cutting out a section of salt-encrusted surface to place on top, placed all of the collected larvae in it, and watched them immediately start digging new burrows with their shovel-like heads. More babies to take care of!

With tiger beetle success under my belt and the sun setting fast, I decided the day was done and packed up the car. As I was closing the hatch, I happened to look over and saw something of great interest – milkweed! I had, in fact, been looking for milkweed all day long in the hopes – faint, I thought – of encountering the newly described Tetraopes heutheri (Skillman 2007). Mirror Lakes, at the McNenny Fish Hatchery, is the type locality of this species, and although the type series was collected in August I held out hope that the adults might persist until September. These hopes faded quickly, however, as I located milkweed plant after milkweed plant on the shortgrass prairie above the eroded clay slopes – all completely senesced, with nary a sign of any milkweed beetles. The plant I’d just spotted – only a small sprout – was green, and on it were two milkweed beetles! I excitedly took some pictures, then started looking carefully about and found several more on additional small sprouts in the area. Apparently, the sprouts represented regrowth from late-season mowing of the roadside, as several full-sized, completely senescent plants were found in the adjacent unmowed area. My excitement at having “found” T. heutheri (because of their small size and occurrence at the type locality) was short lived – closer examination of the specimens after returning home showed them to be very small individuals of the more common Great Plains species T. femoratus. I did have some doubts when I found the beetles, since the milkweed species on which I found them is not the same species with which T. heutheri was associated (Asclepias verticillata, a small species with narrow, linear leaves).

Day 2 in the Black Hills was spent at nearby Boundary Gulch, just across the border in the northeast corner of Wyoming. This was another attempt to find the C. longilabris x nebraskana intergrades that eluded me at McNenney, and although I failed to find them at this location also, I did find five other species of tiger beetles, including several beautifully marked C. limbalis to go along with the two I found the previous day. After that it was some spurious collecting here and there – including larvae from two spots in the southern Black Hills – as I traveled back to Chadron, Nebraska for the night. On tap for tomorrow – Nebraska’s famed Sand Hills! The beautiful sandy tiger beetle (C. limbata) – vivid white and iridescent green to red – hopefully will be found among the super abundant festive (C. scutellaris) and big sand (C. formosa) tigers, and I’ll get another shot at seeing the C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle) that I missed a few days ago.

In Memoriam – Gayle H. Nelson

It was a very productive first day in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with several rather significant finds. However, I’m going to forego an update on these and instead dedicate this post to the memory of my friend and colleague, Dr. Gayle H. Nelson, who passed away on this day three years ago. Gayle was not only one of North America’s premier experts on Buprestidae but was also an outstanding teacher of human anatomy. With a career spanning nearly five decades and generating some 70+ beetle publications, Gayle had the opportunity to interact with many of the world’s most important coleopterists. Despite this, he was one of the most humble and accessible persons I’ve had the honor to meet. I think about Gayle often, especially while on collecting trips – remembering the places we visited and the lessons he taught me. On this 3rd anniversary of his passing, I reproduce here a remembrance that I wrote for a memorial issue of the The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, published September 24, 2006 on the 1st anniversary of his death.

“I had the privilege of calling Gayle Nelson both a mentor and a friend. I first corresponded with Gayle in 1984 as a young collector with a budding interest in beetles, and my first communication with him probably mirrors that of many others – me asking him for help identifying specimens. And, as he likely did for those many others, he graciously agreed. For the next several years, I would send him my “catch” at the end of each season and anxiously await the return shipment. Opening a box of specimens after he’d looked at them was as exciting as Christmas morning, not only to see how well I had fared in my tentative identifications, but also in anticipation of the “gifts” Gayle more often than not included for my collection. On one occasion, I had included examples of a strange looking Agrilus from south Texas that I had found during one of my earliest collecting trips outside of Missouri. They turned out to be A. toxotes, known previously only from Mexico, and a species not represented in Gayle’s collection (a true rarity by that point in his life). In his return letter, Gayle’s excitement about this find was obvious as he politely asked permission to retain a male/female pair. I agreed readily, and when the box of beetles was returned, I found added to its contents several dozen especially colorful examples of western U.S. Acmaeodera. To this young Midwesterner, those beetles were as “exotic” as if they had come from Brazil or Africa. During those early years, Gayle’s letters were rich with advice on collecting and suggestions for localities I should explore, and his kindnesses did much to solidify my passion for buprestids and eventually led to the first of our several coauthored publications.

“It was not until 1991, however, that I finally met Gayle in person while he was still residing in California. I had moved from St. Louis to Sacramento and was eager to explore the “buprestid heaven” that is southern California. Gayle had extended an open invitation to collect with him, so in early June I traveled to his home in Rancho Cucamunga, where he and his wife Jean graciously hosted me for the first two days of a weeklong collecting trip. That first evening I marveled at what was undoubtedly the most impressive private insect collection I had ever seen. Not only was it larger than any collection I had seen, but the exacting and careful manner in which the specimens had been curated and organized was enough to impress even the most retentive among us. We talked about the collecting localities he planned to show me and what species we might find there. To this still relatively “green” buprestophile whose collecting experience was limited primarily to the Missouri Ozarks, the prospect of collecting species of such “exotic” genera as Acmaeoderoides, Anambodera, Prasinalia, and Lepismadora – in one trip – almost seemed too good to be true. But true it was! Our first day in the field I met his longtime friend George Walters, and the three of us visited several of their favorite collecting localities in the San Bernardino Mountains near Wrightwood and in Lone Pine Canyon. I collected around 15 species of buprestids that day – more than I had ever collected on any previous field trip. The next day he took me to the beautiful Santa Rosa Mountains and its fabled Pinyon Flats, Whitewater Canyon and Palm Desert localities, where I added another dozen or so species to my catch – all different from the previous day. During those two days, I was not only astounded by Gayle’s endurance – he was well into his 60s by then – but also impressed with his dogged persistence in searching for his quarry. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was one of the secrets to his great success as a collector. By the end of the second day, I was so exhausted that I slept during most of the long drive back to his home. I spent the rest of the following week visiting many of the other southern California localities Gayle had recommended, looking on the plants he had suggested, and ended up with a whopping trip total of ~60 buprestid species. During the years that followed, I had the good fortune to accompany Gayle on field trips as far away as southern Mexico and close to home in Missouri and Kansas. Each time he taught me something new and re-energized my passion for collecting buprestids. I knew I was “learning from the Master!” Gayle Nelson was large in stature and in life. He was a scientist, a teacher, a dedicated family man and a friend to us all. He will be missed by all who knew him.”

Below is a photograph of Gayle and several other buprestophiles (including a much younger me!), taken July, 1992 in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, México during a world buprestid workers gathering (this photo was also published in the Pan-Pac memorial issue). The day this photograph was taken, Gayle and I had collected the first specimens of what we would later describe as Oaxacanthaxia nigroaenea – the second species in an odd little genus with Old World affinities that had been described just one year earlier by Chuck Bellamy from specimens collected in the very same area.

L-R: Svata Bílý (Czech Republic), Chuck Bellamy (USA), Hans Mühle (Germany), Gayle Nelson (USA), Dave Verity (USA), me, Mark Volkovitsh (Russia). Photo by Rick Westcott (USA).

Goin’ fishin’

For the past two days I’ve been in Sioux County, Nebraska – just east of Wyoming and just south of South Dakota. As I traveled up through the western panhandle to arrive at this spot, I was pleasantly surprised by the varied terrain – not at all the monotonously flat landscape that I expected. The landscape in this so-called Pine Ridge area is even more surprising – an impressive escarpment drops 1,400′ from the high shortgrass prairie down to an eery badlands below. The escarpment itself is forested with Ponderosa pine and is studded with numerous impressive buttes. The photos shown here were taken in Sowbelly Canyon – typical of the landscape along the escarpment – and in the badlands below Monroe Canyon a little further west.

Enough about pines and buttes – my business here is tiger beetles. I met up yesterday with tiger beetle aficionado Matt Brust, who recently took a position here at Chadron State College after finishing his Ph.D. in Lincoln. I’ve been corresponding with Matt for a bit now, and when I told him of my interest in doing a tiger beetle trip through western Nebraska, he was more than willing to show me around and hopefully help me find some of the more unusual species I was looking for. Of course, tops on the priority list was Cicindela nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle). This beetle isn’t common anywhere within its range and just sneaks into the northwest corner of Nebraska, where the type locality is located. Until recently, the species was known from very few specimens in Nebraska. Matt did some intensive sampling a few years ago and located a few limited populations in the vicinity of the type locality. Yesterday, he took me to two of these localities, and we succeeded in finding one individual at the first and several at the second. It was at the type locality where I succeeded in getting this field photo. While admittedly harshly-sunlit, it is as far as I know the only field photograph of the species – all others that I’ve seen have been taken in terraria. I’ll fix it up a bit with Photoshop and re-post once I get back home. This species looks similar to the black morph of Cicindela purpurea audubonii, which co-occurs with C. nebraskana in Nebraska, but it lacks the bright white labrum and elytral markings of the former. Also, as I would learn during these past two days, it can be instantly recognized in the field by its shinier appearance and “stubbier” legs. A few days before my arrival, Matt succeeded in finding the species in the next county to the east, an eastern range extension of about 60 miles, and today I located the species at another new locality between the two. It is gratifying to have played a small role in increasing our knowledge about this unusual species.

My success with C. nebraskana has come despite uncooperative weather. A series of frontal systems has moved through the area since my arrival, resulting in several rain events and lots of cool, cloudy weather. Tiger beetles are sun-loving insects, and when it gets too cold or wet the adults dig in and don’t come out until the sun shines through or temps warm enough to trigger them to dig out. Matt had taken me to another locality – a sand embankment – where we might find the beautiful Cicindela lengi (blowout tiger beetle), but it rained prior to our arrival and we saw no activity. I tried finding adult burrows to dig them out, but the rain had obliterated any trace of the diggings, making their burrows impossible to find. We did, however, note an abundance of larval burrows. I went back to the spot today hoping to see some activity, but thick clouds and cool temps made that unlikely. This is when I decided to “go fishing.” Tiger beetle larval burrows are easily recognized by their perfect circular shape and clean “beveling” around the entrance (1st photo). Burrows of 3rd instars (the last larval instar in tiger beetles) are distinctly larger than those of 2nd instars (2nd photo), while those of 1st instars are smaller still (not shown). Larvae sit at the burrow entrance and ambush any suitable prey that comes too close. During cool, cloudy weather, however, they drop to the bottom of their burrow – up to a foot or more deep. A technique useful for extracting inactive larvae from their burrows is called fishing and involves inserting a thin grass stem down to the bottom of the burrow in an attempt to coax the larva into “taking the bait” and biting the end of the grass stem (3rd photo). The grass stem is then pulled up rapidly – much like setting the hook when fishing – in an attempt to pull the larva out of its burrow before it has a chance to let go of the stem. It can take a few tries, but with practice one can more often than not succeed at removing the grotesquely odd, yet beautiful larva (4th photo). Note the huge, heavily sclerotized head with upward facing jaws. The hump in the middle of the back is armed with forward-curved spines that helps the larva avoid being pulled out of the burrow by struggling prey (but they’re not so effective against obsessive cicindelophiles!). As I managed to “fish” larvae I placed them in a plastic container with their native soil. In the 5th photo, four larvae have already begun digging new burrows, and one more 3rd instar (L) along with a 2nd instar (R) has just been placed in the container. I’ll bring this container back with me and continue to feed the larvae live insects in the hopes of rearing them to adulthood. I cannot say with certainty that the larvae I collected represent C. lengi – other species that could potentially occur at this site include C. scutellaris (festive tiger beetle) and C. limbata (sandy tiger beetle). However, the locality is known for the abundant occurrence there of C. lengi, so I’m hopeful that that is what I’ve collected – we’ll know in a few weeks. In the meantime, I’ll have additional opportunities to look for this species, along with C. limbata, as I pass through the Sand Hills region later this week.

Tomorrow morning I head to the Black Hills in South Dakota, where I hope to find not only Cicindela longilabris laurentii (Boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the high pine forests, but also intergrades between this species and the closely related C. nebraskana in the more open habitats of the middle latitudes. Look for an update in a couple days or so.

Digging tiger beetles

After driving almost 600 miles on Friday, I was ready for some tiger beetle action. A quick 2-hour drive this morning got me to the first set of localities in extreme southwestern Nebraska and just across the border into Colorado (“B” thru “D” in the previously posted map). Compared to the other localities I have lined up for the trip, these were the most vague – based on published records from more than a century ago with no recent ‘ground intelligence.’ I wasn’t too concerned about having success at these spots, I just wanted a potentially interesting area to explore after a day of driving before completing my voyage to the first real target areas up in the northwestern corner of Nebraska. I could’ve taken a more direct line along I-80 and explored areas along that route, but I’ll be exploring that route on my return trip.

My first stop at Benkelman was a bust – I was looking for some sand blows in the hopes of finding Cicindela limbata, but a half hour of so of driving around the area turned up nothing. I stopped at some exposed clay to see if I might encounter C. denverensis but only saw a couple of the ubiquitous C. punctulata. Haigler – a half hour to the west – was more productive. I found a spot with access down along the Republican River (at only 2 yards in width, it is beyond me how this qualifies as a “river”) and found several typical sand associated species – C. scutellaris (pictured) and C. formosa, both nominotypical forms which look very different from the populations we have in Missouri, and several C. tranquebarica individuals that show the bold markings characteristic of the northern Great Plains subspecies kirbyi (the first time I’ve seen this subspecies). My 104 year-old literature reference suggested C. fulgida occurred around salt marshes in the area, but no such habitats were found – probably degraded long ago, or even worse obliterated in the interest of “improving” the land for agriculture. Another half hour drive got me to Wray, just across the border in Colorado, where C. limbata again had been recorded from sand hills above the Republican Trickle. These sand hills were easily located, but the completely barren blows that the species requires, again, were not found – probably allowed/encouraged to grow over. As it was now the heat of the day (a very pleasant low 80’s), the common sand species C. formosa and C. scutellaris were now digging in to avoid the heat.

Although it is well known that adult tiger beetles dig burrows to spend the night, I haven’t really seen much in the literature that talks about their daytime burrowing habits, how to recognize the burrows, and how to dig them out (okay, so now my double entendre of a title makes sense, cuz you see I really ‘dig’ tiger beetles… and I’m digging them from their burrows… oh well, it seemed funny when I thought of it). Many other insects also burrow in the sand, and some of them – especially those of the many ‘digger’ wasps and ground nesting bees – can look very similar to (and sometimes outnumber) those of tiger beetles. In my experience, adult tiger tiger beetle burrows have a more ‘flattened’ aspect to them (1st photo), while those of wasps and bees are more rounded. Fresh burrows from both groups will have moist diggings thrown to one side (in old burrows – often uninhabited – the diggings will be dry), but those of tiger beetles appear more ‘fanned’ while those of hymenopterans are more ‘piled.’ I use a knife to excavate the sand away from the entrance in thin vertical slices (2nd photo), slightly undercutting the burrow to prevent sand from falling into it (and making it impossible to follow). Wasp and bee burrows look more round during excavation and often make a hard turn downward, while those of tiger beetles continue looking very flattened and usually stay rather shallow. If somebody is home, they will be encountered without too much digging – these photos show a C. scutellaris adult peaking out head first and a C. formosa who was still in the act of excavating (done by kicking the sand backwards while backing towards the entrance). I stumbled onto this technique last year during my first encounter with C. limbata – had I not done so I probably would’ve walked away with only a single specimen.

Tomorrow, I hope to have encountered C. nebraskana and C. lengi. Cicindela decemnotata is a long shot, but hope springs eternal…

A hunting we will go!

Maps have been prepared. Relevant emails from my esteemed colleagues to the northwest have been read and re-read. Summary sheets on the distribution, biology, and biogeography of the many different species I hope to encounter are in hand. Google Earth images of each locality I plan to visit – annotated with potential species occurrences and pinpointing precise locations of their likely habitats – have been assembled into a Powerpoint presentation, and detailed driving directions from Point “A” to Point “B”… all the way to Point “X” (home!) have been determined. All of this has been printed out and organized into a 3-ring binder. Why the extraordinary attention to detail? Because…

It’s time for the annual fall tiger beetle trip!

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The annual fall tiger beetle trip started several years ago when I, along with my friend and colleague Chris, began studying Missouri’s tiger beetle fauna. At first it was a diversion – buprestids and cerambycids are pretty well played out by fall, but tiger beetles across much of the U.S. exhibit a unique spring/fall fauna that is quite distinct from the summer fauna. Chris and I would go to different parts of Missouri, documenting the species encountered to fill in distributional data gaps. It was on these trips that I discovered how much I truly love early fall collecting – the cool air, the crisp smells, the long sharp shadows, and a landscape of foliage ever so lightly tinged with shades of red and yellow while grasses morph into fields of gold. In recent years, I’ve begun adventuring beyond Missouri’s borders on these fall trips, allured by the diversity of species found in the Great Plains – species alien to Missouri in an equally alien landscape. First, it was Barber County, Kansas, with its red gypsum hills inhabited by the aptly named Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) – deep wine-red and iridescent purple flashing across the barren red clay. Then last year I got my first taste of the Sand Hills of Nebraska at their farthest eastern extent. I watched in amazement as Cicindela limbata (sandy tiger beetle) – vivid white and metallic green – danced across the surface of sand blows, undaunted by scouring 30 mph winds. It was on that trip that I decided a long weekend wasn’t cutting it – I needed to take a whole week and get myself into the heart of the Great Plains. The annual fall tiger beetle weekend has just become the annual fall tiger beetle week.

As the map above indicates, I’ve got a rather ambitious itinerary of locations that I’d like to visit – 22 in all. I leave tomorrow, and if I have planned properly (and have a little luck) I might be able to visit all of them in the 9 days I have set aside for the trip. My “trip bible” will be my constant companion, along with my already worn copy of the newly issued Tiger Beetles of South Dakota & Nebraska (Spomer et al. 2008), as I explore deep into the Sand Hills and experience for the first time ever the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’ll even sneak over into Colorado and Wyoming for a spot or two. Unfortunately, my faithful colleague isn’t able to join me. I tried to seduce him with visions of Cicindela limbata and C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle) in the numerous sand blows, C. fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) around countless alkaline lakes, C. longilabris (Boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the high pine forests, and C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle) and (if we’re really really lucky) C. decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle) just sneaking into the shortgrass prairies of the extreme northwestern corner of Nebraska. I reminded him of my (wanting) photographic skills and the images we would have to settle for if his talent and equipment didn’t accompany me. I almost had him, but in the end he muttered some lame excuse about his 15-month old baby and wife needing him (just kidding, Chris!).

The map above should be fully interactive, so give it a click and follow me along on this adventure. If you happen to be at any of the spots marked by a balloon and see a khaki-clad fellow – insect net in one hand, camera in the other – how’s about joining me for a bit of tiger beetle hunting.