Happy Halloween!

are-gee-OH-pee our-ON-tea-uhArgiope aurantia

Those who think scientific names are too complicated have the following dizzying array of common names to choose from for this species: black and yellow garden spider; black and yellow argiope; yellow garden spider, yellow garden argiope; yellow garden orbweaver; golden garden spider; golden argiope; golden orbweaver; writing spider; scribbler; corn spider. Or instead, just say Argiope aurantia (are-gee-OH-pee our-ON-tea-uh) – it is unambiguous and will make you sound intelligent.

Large females are commonly encountered in late summer and early fall. This fine lady was photographed 7 September 2008 at Victoria Glades Natural Area in Jefferson County, Missouri. Quite coincidentally, North America’s tarantulas (genus Aphonopelma, represented in Missouri by A. hentzi) reach their natural northeastern limit of distribution in this very glade complex, located ~30 miles south of St. Louis.

There are five North American species of Argiope, of which two occur broadly across the eastern U.S. Argiope aurantia can be distinguished from Argiope trifasciata (banded garden spider/argiope/orbweaver) by the zig-zag pattern of the stabilimentum of the former and the transversely striped abdomen and spotted legs of the latter.

Despite its name, the function of the stabilimentum (reinforced area in the middle of the web) remains controversial. The idea that it somehow adds stability to the web is not given much credence today. A visual function seems much more plausible, especially when considering that only diurnal spiders make such structures. Possibilities include camoflauge for predator avoidance, the seemingly opposite idea of increased visibility to prevent accidental destruction of the web by birds or large animals, and even prey attraction through enhanced reflection of ultraviolet light. Stabilimenta in different spider lineages probably evolved independently and may have different or even multiple functions.

A sand prairie autumn

Splitbeard bluestem seed headsAsk any astronomer when autumn begins, and they will likely tell you it begins at the autumnal equinox – when shortening days and lengthening nights become equal as the sun crosses over the celestial equator. According to them, fall began this year on September 22 – at 11:44:18 A.M. EDT, to be precise. I agree that autumn begins at a precise moment, but it is not at the equinox. Rather, it is that unpredictable moment when a sudden crispness in the air is felt, when the sky somehow seems bluer and shadows seem sharper, and hints of yellow – ever so subtle – start to appear in the landscape. Butterfly pea blossomIn Missouri, with its middle latitudes, this usually happens a few weeks before the equinox, as August is waning into September. It is a moment that goes unnoticed by many, especially those whose lives and livelihoods have lost all connection with the natural world. To plants and animals, however, it is a clear signal – a signal to begin making preparations for the long cold months of winter that lie ahead. Plants that have not yet flowered begin to do so in earnest, while those that have shift energy reserves into developing seeds. Animals take advantage of their final opportunities to feed before enduring the scarcities of winter, digging in to sleep through them, or abandoning altogether and migrating to warmer climes. Insects begin hastily provisioning nests for their broods or laying eggs – tiny capsules of life that survive the harsh winter before hatching in spring and beginning the cycle anew.

Sand prairie in early September.Sand prairie in early October.  Note abundance of splitbeard bluestem seed heads.Across much of Missouri, in the Ozark Highlands and in riparian ribbons dissecting the northern Plains, autumn brings an increasingly intense display of reds, purples, oranges, and yellows, as the leaves of deciduous hardwoods begin breaking down their chlorophyll to unmask underlying anthocyanins and other pigments. Small southern jointweedIn Missouri’s remnant prairies, seas of verdant green morph to muted shades of amber, tawny, and beige. This subtle transformation is even more spectacular in the critically imperiled sand prairies of the Southeast Lowlands, where stands of splitbeard bluestem (Andropogon ternaries – above) turn a rich russet color while fluffy, white seed heads (1st paragraph, 1st photo) appear along the length of each stem, evoking images of shooting fireworks. Small southern jointweed (Polygonella americana – right) finds a home at the northern extent of its distribution in these prairie remnants and in similar habitats in nearby Crowley’s Ridge, blooming in profusion once the cooler nights arrive. Butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana – 1st paragraph, 2nd photo) blooms add a gorgeous splash of soft purple in contrast to the muted colors of the plants around them.

Kent Fothergill, Ted MacRae, and Rich ThomaAfter first becoming acquainted with Missouri’s sand prairies this past summer, I knew a fall trip (or two) would be in order. The extensive deep, dry sand barrens were ideal habitat for sand-loving insects, including certain spring/fall species of tiger beetles that would not be active during the summer months. The cooler nights and crisp air of early fall make insect collecting extraordinarily pleasurable, so it took little effort to convince friends and colleagues Kent and Rich to join me on another excursion to these extraordinary remnant habitats, along with my (then 8 yr-old) daughter Madison (who would likely characterize this as “tallgrass” prairie). Madison MacRae, age 9 (almost)I was, as ever, on the lookout for tiger beetles; however, temperatures were cool, skies were overcast, and the fall season was just beginning, greatly limiting tiger beetle activity during this first fall visit. We did see one Cicindela formosa (big sand tiger beetle), which cooperated fully for a nice series of photographs. We also found single specimens of the annoyingly ubiquitous C. punctulata (punctured tiger beetle) and a curiously out-of-place C. duodecimguttata (12-spotted tiger beetle), which must have flown some distance from the nearest dark, muddy streambank that it surely prefers. Of greatest interest, we found two specimens of C. scutellaris (festive tiger beetle), which in this part of Missouri is represented by a population presenting a curious mix of influences from two different subspecies (more on this in a later post…). Despite the scarcity of tiger beetles, other insects were present in great diversity, some of which I share with you here.

Ululodes macleayanusThis bizarre creature, sitting on the stem of plains snakecotton (Froelichia floridana), is actually a neuropteran insect called an owlfly (family Ascalaphidae). Looking like a cross between a dragonfly and a butterfly due to its overly large eyes and many-veined wings but with long, clubbed antennae, this individual is demonstrating the cryptic resting posture they often assume with the abdomen projecting from the perch and resembling a twig. The divided eyes identify this individual as belonging to the genus Ululodes, and Dr. John D. Oswald (Texas A&M University) has kindly identified the species as U. macleayanus. As is true of many groups of insects, their taxonomy is far from completely understood. Larvae of these basal holometabolans are predaceous, lying on the ground with their large trap-jaws held wide open and often camouflaging themselves with sand and debris while waiting for prey. The slightest contact with the jaws springs them shut, and within a few minutes the prey is paralyzed and can be sucked dry at the larva’s leisure.

Ant lion, possibly in the genus Myrmeleon.Another family of neuropteran insects closely related to owlflies are antlions (family Myrmeleontidae, sometimes misspelled “Myrmeleonidae”). This individual (resting lower down on the very same F. floridana stem) may be in the genus Myrmeleon, but my wanting expertise doesn’t allow a more conclusive identification [edit 4/12/09 – John D. Oswald has identified the species as Myrmeleon immaculatus]. Strictly speaking, the term “antlion” applies to the larval form of the members of this family, all of whom create pits in sandy soils to trap ants and other small insects, thus, it’s occurrence in the sand prairie is not surprising. Larvae lie in wait beneath the sand at the bottom of the pit, flipping sand on the hapless prey to prevent it from escaping until they can impale it with their large, sickle-shaped jaws, inject digestive enzymes that ‘pre-digest’ the prey’s tissues, and suck out the liquifying contents. Finding larvae is not easy – even when pits are located and dug up, the larvae lie motionless and are often covered with a layer of sand that makes them almost impossible to detect. I’ve tried digging up pits several times and have failed as yet to find one. Larvae are also sometimes referred to as “doodlebugs” in reference to the winding, spiralling trails that the larvae leave in the sand while searching for a good trap location – these trails look like someone has doodled in the sand.

Bembix americanaThis digger wasp, Bembix americana (ID confirmed by Matthias Buck), was common on the barren sand exposures, where they dig burrows into the loose sand. Formerly included in the family Sphecidae (containing the better-known “cicada killer”), members of this group are now placed in their own family (Crabronidae). Adult females provision their nest with flies, which they catch and sting to paralyze before dragging it down into the burrow. As is common with the social hymenoptera such as bees and paper wasps, these solitary wasps engage in active parental care by providing greater number of prey as the larva grows. As many as twenty flies might be needed for a single larva. I found the burrows of these wasps at first difficult to distinguish from those created by adults of the tiger beetles I so desired, but eventually learned to distinguish them by their rounder shape and coarser, “pile” rather than “fanned” diggings (see this post for more on this subject).

Stichopogon trifasciatusRobber flies (family Asilidae) are a favorite group of mine (or, at least, as favorite as a non-coleopteran group can be). This small species, Stichopogon trifasciatus (ID confirmed by Herschel Raney), was also common on the barren sandy surface. The specific epithet refers to the three bands of alternating light and dark bands on the abdomen. Many species in this family are broadly distributed but have fairly restrictive ecological requirements, resulting in rather localized occurrences within their distribution. Stichopogon trifasciatus occurs throughout North America and south into the Neotropics wherever barren, sandy or gravely areas near water can be found. Adults are deadly predators, swooping down on spiders, flies and other small insects and “stabbing” them with their stout beak.

Chelinidea vittigerPrickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) grows abundantly in the sandy soil amongst the clumps of bluestem, and on the pads were these nymphs of Chelinidea vittiger (cactus bug, family Coreidae). This wide-ranging species occurs across the U.S. and southward to northern Mexico wherever prickly pear hosts can be found. This species can either be considered a beneficial or a pest, depending upon perspective. On the one hand, it serves as a minor component in a pest complex that prevents prickly pear from aggressively overtaking rangelands in North America; however, prickly pear is used by ranchers as emergency forage, and fruits and spineless pads are also sometimes harvested for produce. In Missouri, O. humifusa is a non-aggressive component of glades, prairies, and sand and gravel washes, making C. vittiger an interesting member of the states natural diversity.

Ammophila sp., possibly A. proceraThis wasp in the genus Ammophila (perhaps A. procera as suggested by Herschel Raney) was found clinging by its jaws to a bluestem stem in the cool morning, where it presumably spent the night. One of the true sphecid (or “thread-waist”) wasps, A. procera is a widespread and common species in eastern North America. One of the largest members of the genus, its distinctive, bold silver dashes on the thorax distinguish it from most other sympatric congeners. Similar to the habits of most other aculeate wasp groups, this species captures and paralyzes sawfly or lepidopteran caterpillars to serve as food for its developing brood. Females dig burrows and lay eggs on the paralyzed hosts with which the nests have been provisioned. Adults are also found commonly on flowers, presumably to feed on nectar and/or pollen.

Dusty hog-nosed snakeRich is a bit of herpatologist, so when he brought this hog-nosed snake to our attention we all had a good time pestering it to try to get it to turn upside down and play dead. I had never seen a hog-nosed snake before but knew of its habit of rolling over and opening its mouth with its tongue hanging out when disturbed, even flopping right back over when turned rightside up or staying limp when picked up. We succeeded in getting it to emit its foul musky smell, but much to our disappointment it never did play dead, instead using its shovel-shaped snout to dig into the sand. Dusty hog-nosed snake - head closeupWe had assumed this was the common and widespread eastern hog-nosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos); however, in our attempts to turn it over I noticed its black and orange checker patterned belly. I later learned this to be characteristic of the dusky hog-nosed snake (H. nasicus gloydi), only recently discovered in the sand prairies of southeast Missouri and regarded as critically imperiled in the state due to the near complete destruction of such habitats. Disjunct from the main population further west, its continued survival in Missouri depends upon the survival of these small sand prairie remnants in the Southeast Lowlands.

New species and a review of the genus Tragidion

ResearchBlogging.orgSpecies of Tragidion are among the larger and more attractive cerambycids in North America, making them popular among collectors. Their bright orange and black coloration clearly functions in mimicking spider wasps (family Pompilidae) in the genera Pepsis and Hemipepsis – the so-called “tarantula hawks.” Unfortunately, species of Tragidion have been difficult to identify due to a high degree of morphological similarity between species, wide range of variation across geographic areas within species, unusually high sexual dimorphism and dichromatism, and apparent potential for hybridization in areas of geographic overlap. This has confounded efforts to delimit species boundaries, resulting in a confusing assortment of names whose proper application has eluded even the most esteemed of North America’s cerambycid taxonomists. Recently, some much needed clarity was provided by Ian Swift and Ann M. Ray in the journal Zootaxa. Their taxonomic review of Tragidion – the first systematic treatment of the entire genus – recognizes seven species in North America and another four restricted to Mexico. Two species – T. agave from California and Baja California and T. deceptum from montane areas of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico (both pictured) – are described as new, and a third – T. densiventre from desert areas of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico – is raised from synonymy under T. auripenne. Four new synonymies are also proposed, and dorsal habitus photographs and a key to all species are provided. Life history information is limited for most species of Tragidion. One species – T. coquus – occurs broadly across the eastern and central U.S., where it breeds in a variety of dead hardwoods, especially oak. Several species occur in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico – some are found in xeric lowland desert habitats, where they breed in dead branches of Prosopis glandulosa and Acacia greggii (T. densiventre) or dead flower stalks of Yucca and Agave (T. agave and T. armatum), while a fourth (T. deceptum) is found in more montane habitats mining the heartwood of recently dead branches of Quercus. Adults of another species in California and Baja California, T. annulatum, are strongly attracted to brushfires and burning vegetation, and individuals have been observed landing on still-burning and smoldering shrubs, causing their legs and abdomens to melt to the surface of the branches. At several post-burn sites, the melted bodies of this species were common on the charred branches of their hosts, and females have been observed ovipositing on woody shrubs that have been burned. This species likely plays an important role in the decomposition of burned woody material in coastal areas of California. The remaining U.S. species – T. auripenne – is known from only a handful of specimens collected in xeric habitats in the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. It’s life history, as well as those of the four strictly Mexican species, remains essentially unknown.

Tragidion agaveTragidion agave Swift & Ray 2008, ♂ & ♀ – California & Baja California. Tragidion deceptumTragidion deceptum Swift & Ray 2008, ♂ & ♀ – southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

REFERENCE: Swift, I., Ray, A. M. (2008). A review of the genus Tragidion Audinet-Serville, 1834 (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Cerambycinae: Trachyderini) Zootaxa, 1892, 1-25

Deciding on science

I hope you’ll forgive my momentary diversion into politics for this post. I’m not normally one to ‘proseletize’, and I promise to return to my normal subject matter in the next post. But at this moment we find ourselves on the eve of arguably the most important election in our history. Of the many objections that can be raised about the Bush administration’s policies during the past eight years, it is his seeming all-out attack on science and the environment that has most alarmed me. From supporting the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in science classes and vetoing federal funding for stem cell research, to suppressing and censoring reports on subjects such as global warming and mercury pollution and stacking scientific advisory panels with political appointments, Bush has led what might be described as ‘the most anti-science’ administration in history. Under his administration, federal funding for physical and life science research has stagnated or declined, threatening our once dominant position in the scientific world and risking the future prosperity that depends upon science-based innovation. I suspect both Barack Obama and John McCain will implement science policies that would be a considerable improvement over those of Bush; however, let us consider the details.

Obama has promised to double the federal investment in basic research, restore integrity to the process of obtaining scientific advice, and invest in clean energy technology. McCain has also voiced support for increased science funding and restoring integrity; however, he has also proposed an across the board freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending. Throughout his campaign, Obama has emphasized the power of science and technology to increase U.S. competitivness, while McCain’s relative lack of statements on traditional areas of science policy suggests, if not antagonism, at least apathey. Both candidates recognize nuclear energy as an important non-carbon energy source, but where Obama has urged caution until the significant challenges of waste storage and potential for proliferation are addressed, McCain has called this “no problem.” McCain also sees aggressive oil drilling as an important step in achieving energy independence, despite the fact that the U.S. owns only 3% of the world’s oil reserves while being responsible for a full 25% of its consumption. He considers our need for oil to be a national security issue, justifying the opening of currently protected areas for drilling. Whenever I hear the shrill call to open up ANWAR, I am reminded of this oft-used passage from Life Without Principle by Henry David Thoreau:

“If a man should walk in the woods for the love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer, but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

John McCain also declined a recent Nature invitation to answer 18 science-related questions in writing (an invitation that Obama accepted), thereby missing another important opportunity to be more forthcoming about his science policy. In contrast, Obama’s science agenda clearly emphasizes a commitment to clean energy, environmental stewardship, and aggressive promotion of science-based education. This has prompted 62 Nobel Prize Laureates to write a letter on Sept. 25 endorsing Obama for president.

Perhaps most illuminating are the candidates responses to questions about the teaching of creationism (sometimes repackaged as ‘intelligent design’) in science classrooms and funding for research using human embryonic stem-cell lines. Obama acknowledges the strong consensus of the scientific community in the validity of evolutionary theory, opposes mandated teaching of ‘alternative’ theories that are not subject to experimental scrutiny, and strongly supports expanding research on stem cells. McCain’s statements have displayed more ambivalence – he believes in evolution and has voted to lift Bush’s ban on stem cell research but has also made statements supporting teaching “all points of view” about human origins and defining stem cell policies that “reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress.” Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin – a staunch critic of evolution and stem cell research and supporter of teaching intelligent design – has been anything but ambivalent on these issues, and her selection as his running mate is perhaps the most disturbing indicator of what McCain really believes.

I share with you some pictures that I took this past weekend at the Obama Rally in St. Louis. Our entire family was excited to have the opportunity to view Obama – rightly described by Colin Powell as a ‘transformational figure’ – in person. We expected the crowd would be large so arrived early in the morning, by which time the line already extended almost to the northern boundary of the Gateway Arch grounds. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a spot quite a close to the stage, and once inside savored and shared the excitement and anticipation with a diverse crowd who were all there for a common cause – the 2-hour wait was anything but boring! Local and state dignitaries primed the crowd, and by the time Obama arrived the crowd had swelled to over 100,000. Looking back upon the crowd from our spot near the stage and seeing the excitement, I felt like I was a part of history. While this flyer that was circulating (titled, “Scary Thought”) may be a bit of an exaggeration, I don’t think the choice could be clearer.

It’s a girl!

I’ve been interested in collecting insects since I was 10 years old, and my current collection dates back to spring semester 1978 when, after finally declaring a major, I kicked off my life as an entomologist with Entomology 101. I did my graduate work on the now-defunct Homoptera (I just can’t call them hemipterans), using laboratory rearing to figure out life history details of several species of leafhoppers. Although my allegiance would soon switch to beetles (where it has remained ever since), my interest in rearing insects would persist. It wasn’t long before I began rearing wood boring beetles as a way of studying their distributions and host plant associations. I’ve reared beetles from literally hundreds of batches of wood – buprestids, cerambycids, bostrichids, clerids, ostomids, you name it – if it breeds in wood, I’ve reared it. Not to mention the parasitic hymenopterans and even predaceous asilids associated with them. Rearing has been part of my professional life as well. In the early part of my career in industry, I supervised an insectary that maintained laboratory colonies of nearly two dozen arthropod species to support research. We reared moths, beetles, flies, roaches, aphids – even mites and nematodes. However, despite having reared hundreds of species of insects, I had never reared a tiger beetle – until now!

This little gal – a gorgeous individual representing Cicindela limbalis (common claybank tiger beetle) – was waiting for me when I returned from my recent trip to western Nebraska and South Dakota. I had collected her as a 3rd instar larva from her burrow atop a steep clay bank in western Missouri, where my colleague and I were conducting our survey for Cicindela pruinina (now Dromochorus pruininus). I had entertained the hope that it might prove to be that species, but the abundance of larval burrows within this patch of habitat – where C. pruinina had not been seen – and the fact that they contained mostly 3rd instars suggested it would prove to be one of the spring-fall clay associated species. After fishing her from her burrow, I filled an empty Starbuck’s Frappucinno bottle (there is, apparently, only one place in the Ozarks where availability of good coffee obviates the need to resort to a cold, sugary, “coffee-flavored” drink in the morning) with native clay and dropped her in, where she immediately proceeded to dig a new burrow. She was thoughtful enough to dig her burrow right down along the glass so that I could keep an eye on her over the next several weeks, occasionally dropping in a fat fall armyworm larva and watching it meet its gruesome yet mercifully quick death. A few weeks before my trip, she sealed up her burrow and disappeared from view. Curious (and impatient), I emptied the soil from the bottle and found her down at the bottom, quiescent but apparently healthy. I put the soil back into the bottle and dropped her in, and she immediately dug a new burrow, sealed it up, and disappeared from view once again. My curiosity satisfied, I had an easier time leaving her alone after that, and when I returned from my trip, there she was.

Cicindela limbalis occurs throughout Missouri on eroded or sparsely vegetated clay soils, although it is less common in the southern Ozark Highlands – being largely replaced by Cicindela splendida (splendid tiger beetle). I’ve most often encountered C. limbalis on roadside embankments, along 2-tracks through open forest and woodland, and in glade habitats. This individual shows the greatly reduced elytral maculations that are typical of populations found throughout most of Missouri – only in the extreme northern tier of counties is the full pattern of maculation expressed (as exemplified by this individual from central Nebraska). At one time, this reduced maculation was the basis for recognition as a separate subspecies (C. limbalis transversa); however, no distinct geographical forms are currently recognized for this species (unusual in cicindelid taxonomy). Regardless of her taxonomic identity, I’m enjoying watching my new pet – she now occupies a larger, roomier terrarium filled with native clay, into which she has dug a burrow and spends most of her time sitting at its entrance. As she did when she was a 3rd instar, she enjoys a fat fall armyworm larva for lunch every few days. She will eventually take up permanent residence in a neat row inside a wooden, glass-topped box, but for now I’m going to do everything I can to delay that fate. Of all the many thousands of insects that I’ve reared over the years, she is my favorite.

Tigers in the Nebraska Badlands

In going back through the photos I accumulated during my recent “fall tiger beetle trip” and reading the periodic updates that I provided along the way, I fear that I gave unfairly short shrift to one of the most scenic areas that I visited. Part of this was due to my preoccupation with and excitement at having found Cicindela nebraskana (prairie longlipped tiger beetle), whose distribution just barely sneaks into the extreme northwestern corner of Nebraska. The beetle makes its home in the mixed-shortgrass prairies lying above the Pine Ridge, a north-facing escarpment where exposures of deep sandy clay sediments intercalated with volcanic ash have been carved into dramatic buttes, ridges and canyons. Cloaked in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), with riparian ribbons of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and cottonwood (Populus deltoides) – during my visit showing the earliest hints of their vivid autumnal yellow dress, the Pine Ridge is not only one of Nebraska’s most dramatic landforms but also bears significant historical importance. It is here where the the final chapter of the Sioux and Cheyenne resistance to white settlement of the northern Plains took place, with the 1877 murder/assassination of Crazy Horse at nearby Fort Robinson, after he had surrendered to U.S. troops, all but sealing their fate.

In dramatic contrast to the forested escarpment and gentle prairie that lies atop it, a stark, otherworldly landscape spreads out below the nearly 1,500-foot drop down the escarpment from the High Plains above. I refer, of course, to the Nebraska Badlands, a southern sliver of the same landscape whose heart – Badlands National Park – draws almost a million visitors a year. For the past several hundred thousand years, water and wind have carved the deep Oligocene sediments into an eerie maze of ravines, pinnacles, gullies, and sharp-crested hills. Desolate and arid, it would seem that nothing could live in this hot, naked landscape that early French-Canadian fur trappers called les mauvaises terres à traverser – “the bad lands to cross.” In fact, life abounds in the Badlands – pronghorns, deer, jackrabbits, and of course – tigers!

Our search for Cicindela nebraskana in the high prairie, though already successful, was brought most inconveniently to an end when a line of showers moved over us. It was probably a good thing, as we were forced to move on and give ourselves a chance to see different things. I could have easily ended up frittering away the remainder of the afternoon endlessly scanning the narrow cow paths that crisscrossed the prairie in hopes of finding “just one more” of the little beetles that just a few hours earlier had been only a hope. Matt asked me if I wanted to see C. lengi or C. fulgida first. I looked at the sky – cloudy over the prairie and sunny to the north over the Badlands – and voted for the latter. I had been marveling at the Pine Ridge on every approach during the day, and dropping down the face of the escarpment through Monroe Canyon provided yet another spectacular vantage. As soon as we arrived on the plain below, the road turned to gravel and the landscape morphed into a patchwork of sparse, dry grass amongst barren exposures of multicolored earth. I looked out at the barren exposures – seemingly ideal habitat for tiger beetles – and asked Matt what species were out there. He shook his head and said, “Nothing lives there.”

Our destination was a dry, alkaline creek several miles north in the Oglala National Grassland (administered, somewhat ironically, by the U.S. Forest Service). Matt had seen Cicindela fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) darting over the salt-encrusted ground amongst bunches of saltgrass on a previous visit, and after some back and forth searching we finally located what we hoped was the correct spot. Only small strips of alkaline soil were seen at first, but as we moved further away from the road the alkaline patches became much more expansive. Although dry, the habitat looked perfect for C. fulgida, and it didn’t take long for Matt to flush one from the bunches of saltgrass. Unfortunately, that would be the last individual we would see for the day. Another hour of searching yielded no more, and eventually the showers that chased us from the mixed-shortgrass prairie above would put an end to our fulgida-search, also. I would have to be content with having had seen one as I admired the fantastical displays of rainbows and virga brought over us by the unsettled skies.

Cicindela fulgida was not, however, the only tiger beetle species we found living in this harsh environment. Cicindela purpurea (cow path tiger beetle) is not nearly so choosy as its common name implies, occurring in virtually any open, clay habitat without regard to its alkalinity. Western Nebraska populations are assignable to subspecies audubonii, which occurs broadly across all but the most southerly Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, although I am loathe to accept the validity of this subspecies due to the existence of a broad zone of intergradation in the eastern half of the prairie states with eastern nominotypical populations. Regardless of its taxonomy, C. purpurea is quite abundant in western Nebraska and appears in two distinct color forms – green and black, the latter of which I was quite excited to see. It took quite some effort to finally obtain the acceptable photos that I show here – especially with the black individuals since they were not so commonly encountered. It was hard to get close, and when I managed to get close they would more often than not run just as I was about to snap the shutter. As evidence of the frustration I experienced trying to get a photo of the black form, I include here an example of an early attempt that, for some reason, I spared from a quick punch of the ‘Delete’ key (click on it to experience the full extent of my frustration). I also lucked into spotting this female that had captured a blister beetle (family Meloidae), apparently unphased by the toxic cantharidins (and active ingredient in ‘Spanish fly’) present in the hemolymph of its prey. Lucky is the fellow who encounters this female once she finishes her meal!

Almost as abundant as C. purpurea was C. tranquebarica (oblique lined tiger beetle). This is another species that is not too fastidious about its habitat – sand, clay, alkaline or not, as long as there is some amount of water nearby this species will be satisfied. Like C. purpurea (and many species of tiger beetles, in fact), western populations in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains are considered subspecifically distinct from eastern populations, but with that annoyingly broad intergrade zone running down through the eastern half of the prairie states. In the case of this species, western populations are called subspecies kirbyi, differing in a most insignificant manner by their widened elytral maculations. I’ll let the reader infer how I feel about the validity of such subspecific distinction. Larval burrows of this species are often found in very high densities, and considering its abundance at this site I suspect these might be the larval burrows of that species. I spent quite a bit of time trying to fish out larvae from these burrows but ended up with only one. There are, however, other species of tiger beetles that live in these alkaline habitats, including the highly desirable Cicindela terricola (variable tiger beetle) which just sneaks into western Nebraska, so I’m not making a call on its identity yet. It’s now enjoying its new burrow in a container of alkaline soil sitting on my lab bench, and just yesterday it ate a nice, fat fall armyworm larva for lunch.

Collection Inventory update

The more observant – and taxonomically inclined – among my readers may have noticed the sidebar item entitled, “T. C. MacRae Collection”. The links within that item lead to Google documents detailing the species in those groups of insects that are represented within my collection. I am primarily a beetle guy, and within that vast taxon I focus mostly on the woodboring beetle groups Buprestidae and Cerambycidae and the tiger beetle family Cicindelidae. As you can see, however, I have inventories for several additional groups, including non-beetle families – a testament to my inability to suppress broad interest in insects as a whole. I don’t claim to be an expert in these other groups of insects, but I do enjoy learning about groups outside my chosen field of expertise. It’s a bit of a ‘throwback’ attitude – insect taxonomists of the 19th and early 20th centuries commonly studied multiple families or even orders of insects. This broad approach has largely disappeared in the past 50 years, as taxonomists increasingly have been forced to become narrowly focused on a single insect taxon. I can maintain this broad approach because, while I am a professional entomologist, I am a taxonomist only by avocation. My research is conducted at my own discretion and doesn’t rely on securing grants or fulfilling a departmental mission. Rather, it is directed only by what I find interesting and can reasonably afford in terms of time and expense.

The purpose of this update is twofold – to call attention to two recent additions to the list of inventories, and to explain how the inventories are constructed in the event that some future reader will want to utilize them for reference. In the past two weeks, I’ve received back material accumulated over the years in the families Mutillidae (velvet ants) and Asilidae (robber flies). This material had been sent to experts for identification – doctoral candidate Kevin Williams (Utah State University) graciously provided IDs for the velvet ants, while worldwide asilid expert Dr. Eric Fisher (California Department of Food and Agriculture) kindly identified the robber flies. For each of these groups, an inventory was constructed in which the species represented by my material are listed in the context of the group’s currently accepted higher classification. In each case, higher taxa not represented in my collection are indicated by lighter gray text. A similar approach has been used, to varying degrees, in the other listed inventories. The biggest one, Buprestoidea, represents the bulk of my collection, listing almost 1,500 species from around the world. In this case, not only is the complete higher classification indicated, but all currently recognized world genera are also listed, as well as all known North American species. Again, taxa not represented in my collection are indicated by lighter gray text. Similar inventories have been constructed for Cerambycidae and Cicindelidae, but in these cases the inclusion of taxa missing from my collection is limited to those occurring in North America – their combined worldwide fauna is simply too large for me to concern myself with, given my primary focus on the worldwide buprestoid fauna.

Regarding the Buprestoidea, Cerambycidae, and Cicindelidae – these are my chosen groups of interest in which I am actively building North American representation (worldwide for Buprestoidea). If anyone can provide specimens representing taxa not in my collection, please contact me directly. I am more than happy to exchange for such material. As for the other groups, they are primarily ‘just for fun’ – I collect them when convenient because they are interesting, but more importantly to make them available to others who might have a research interest in them. If anyone working in these groups sees species listed that are of interest to your research, please feel free to contact me for a loan or exchange. I have material in many additional groups not yet listed – inventories will be posted as they become available. If you have interest in a group not listed, please contact me and I’ll let you know what material I have available for loan/exchange.