A festive (tiger beetle) birthday

Last Thursday was my birthday, and as has become my custom, I took the day off and went on my ‘Annual Season Opening Birthday Bug Collecting Trip.’  One or two of you might remember how these plans were scrubbed last year by a last minute business trip, during which I discovered Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota. That experience – and the post that I wrote about it – remain high among my all-time favorites. Despite that, nothing was going to derail my plans to go collecting this year, and at 5:30 in the morning I awoke to begin what would turn out to be as enjoyable and successful a day as I could hope for. I had convinced my colleagues and long-time collecting buddies Rich Thoma and Chris Brown to take the day off as well and accompany me down to the lowlands of southeastern Missouri to search for additional localities of the festive tiger beetle – Cicindela scutellaris.

Records of Cicindela scutellaris in southeast Missouri

Records of Cicindela scutellaris in southeast Missouri

As far as is currently known – C. scutellaris is represented in Missouri by three highly disjuct populations in the extreme northwestern, northeastern, and southeastern corners of the state.  The two northern populations are unambigously assignable to the northern subspecies lecontei, although their absence from areas further south in Missouri along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers remains a mystery.  The southeastern population apparently represents an intergrade population with influences from both lecontei and the southeastern subspecies unicolor.  While this population was discovered many years ago (I first collected it in the mid-1980s), it remained known only from sand forests in Holly Ridge Conservation Area on Crowley’s Ridge.  A second population was discovered several years ago on sand exposures in the extreme western lowlands near the Ozark Escarpment when Chris Brown and I began our formal survey of tiger beetles in Missouri, and last year I succeeded in locating several populations of the beetle in the critically imperiled sand prairie relicts located along the spine of the Sikeston Sand Ridge.

cicindela_scutellaris_p1020910_2This year, we wanted to determine if intergrade populations also occurred on the Malden Sand Ridge – the southernmost expanse of sand exposures in the southeastern lowlands.  We didn’t know if they did – presettlement sand prairies were less abundant on the Malden Ridge due to its higher soil organic content.  As a result, no sand prairie relicts survived the Malden Ridge’s complete conversion to agriculture.  Undeterred, I got onto Google Maps and scoured satellite imagery of the ridge and located several spots that seemed to have potential – even though they were agricultural fields, they appeared to be of sufficient expanse and with enough sand to possibly support populations of the beetle.

So, on the morning of April 23, my ‘Annual Birthday Season Opening Bug Collecting Trip’ began by meeting up with Rich and Chris and driving the 223 miles from Wildwood to Kennett to explore several locations for a beetle based only on the suggestion of a flickering computer screen.  The first of these locations was a bust – there was a house constructed right in the middle of the site that wasn’t on the Google Map.  cicindela_scutellaris_p1020889_2Maybe the beetle occurred here and maybe it didn’t, but the last thing I wanted to do on a Thursday morning was interrupt a homeowner from their morning routine and ask them if we could collect bugs in their front yard.  Besides, there was another locality just a couple miles up the road that looked equally promising.  We found the spot and drove by slowly – it was an agricultural field that looked like it had been fallow for at least a short time, and although it did not look great (not as much sand as I had hoped) we eventually decided that since we were there we might as well take a look.  It wasn’t long before we saw an individual near the highest part of the field, and through a couple hours of exploring and digging adult burrows we had observed a limited number of adults.  Success!  The landowner happened by while we were there and graciously allowed us to continue our searches.  Through her, we learned that the field had been under soybean cultivation during the previous season.  This was good news to learn that beetles were inhabiting sand exposures on the Malden Ridge despite its complete conversion to agriculture.

Having confirmed the occurrence of C. scutellaris on the Malden Ridge, we then began driving to the next putative locality some miles north along the ridge.  Along the way, Chris spotted a rather large sand expanse in another agricultural field right next to the highway.  cicindela_scutellaris_p1020906_2Even though I hadn’t detected it in my Google Map search, it looked promising enough to explore, and so we did a quick U-turn and found a place to pull over.  This spot can only be described as the ‘festive tiger beetle motherlode’ of southeast Missouri!  Even though the field was obviously under active agricultural use, the beetles were abundant within the fairly large expanse of exposed sand within the field (photo below).  We were quickly able to collect a sufficient series to document the beetle’s range of variation and set about obtaining additional photographs.  I felt fortunate to be able to photograph this mating pair, which nicely illustrates the white labrum of the male (top) versus the dark labrum of the female (bottom) – one character that distinguishes this intergrade population from the similar-appearing six-spotted tiger beetle (C. sexguttata – commonly encountered along woodland trails throughout the eastern U.S., and with both sexes exhibiting a white labrum).  Note also how the male is holding his legs out horizontally (a behavior I’ve seen with other mating pairs) and the more heavily padded tarsi on his front legs. The latter specialization is thought to aid in grasping and holding the female (Pearson et al. 2006), although in this instance it clearly is not serving that function, but I have not yet determined for what purpose the horizontal posturing of the front legs is all about (perhaps it is related to alarm behavior).

cicindela_scutellaris_habitat_p1020899_2We completed the day by documenting the occurrence of this species on the third of only three sizeable sand prairie relicts that remain on the Sikeston Sand Ridge – a private parcel located a few miles south of the other two preserves.  These observations have increased our confidence that C. scutellaris is secure in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands, and that – thankfully – no special conservation measures will be required at this time to assure its continued existence.  We also now have enough material on hand to characterize the range of variation exhibited by individuals across this population.  We hope this will allow a greater understanding of the relative influence of lecontei populations to the north versus unicolor populations to the south in contributing to the makeup of this population.

Since it was my birthday, it was appropriate that I should discover this “gift” next to the rim of my net after I slapped it over a mating pair of beetles.  I haven’t found a large number of Native American artifacts during my time in the field, but this has to be most impressive of those that I have found – it is in almost perfect condition, with only the smallest of chips off of one of the lower corners.  Edit 5/5/09: After a little research, I believe this to be a spear point from the Archaic period (12,000 to 2,500 years ago).


p.s. – my 100th post!


Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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24 thoughts on “A festive (tiger beetle) birthday

  1. Happy birthday Ted!
    And congrats on your hunt.
    Slowly warming up here in Maine, I’m on the hunt for C.longilabris. I know a spot, I just need some heat.
    Happy spring.

    • Thanks, Kirk – and good luck with Cicindela longilabris, I hope someday to encounter that species myself. I also hope you find C. ancocisconensis, that would be a nice find.

  2. You have such interesting beetles in US! Belated happy B’day, by the way. Recently discovered your blog and enjoy your writings and images.

  3. Happy Birthday Ted, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than a bug hunt. Too bad my birthday falls in February, no birthday bug hunts for me. The arrow head was a great unexpected gift to wrap up your adventurous day.

  4. Happy birthday hunting, Ted.

    I was just down in that area a couple of weeks ago, and can report that several southeastern sand specialist ant species are doing surprisingly well in highly disturbed and modified sandy sites down there, too.

    On the other hand, do you share the impression that the sandy parts of Holly Ridge are becoming worrisomely overgrown with (non-native) pines? Sand-loving ants are also usually sun-loving, and they’re finding it harder and harder to encounter good sunny spots under those conditions. Beetles, too, I presume…

    • Hi James. I haven’t been to Holly Ridge for some time, so I can’t say whether there has been a negative impact from the growth of those pines (I believe they are red pine?). However, I did note their occurrence there, and any shade they produce would definitely NOT be good for tiger beetles – they need sun, sun, sun!

      It’s a familiar refrane – Missouri’s presettlement landscape was largely fire-mediated, and since fire is suppressed on such a large scale now the historical landscape is being lost everywhere except in the tiniest of pockets. Tiger beetles especially are dependent upon disturbance factors – not just fire, but also native grazers, flood deposition, etc. – to generate new habitat. It wouldn’t be so important for individual sites to be preserved for posterity if these disturbance factors were allowed to operate, but without them there is constant pressure on our habitats to close up.

    • Thanks, Huck. It is beyond me how people ever get bored! Even when you can’t get out in the field, there are always things to look up, books to read, thoughts to think, etc. You get it!

    • Hi barefootheart. Thanks for stopping by.

      Native American history in southeastern Missouri is classified into the following periods:
      – Paleo-Indian ~13,000 years ago (near the end of the last glacial)
      – Archaic 12,000 to 2,500 years ago
      – Woodland 2,500 – 1,100 years ago
      – Mississippian 1,100 to 500 years ago (European contact)

      Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures hunted the area nomadically, while the Woodland and Mississippian cultures begin building permanent “cities” characterized by earthen mounds. From what I can tell, the artifact I found is a spear tip from the Archaic period, making it at least 2,500 years old. The much smaller ‘arrowheads’ didn’t appear until the beginning of the Woodland culture.

  5. What a great way to celebrate your birthday! Mine is at the wrong time of the year to celebrate with tigers. I hope yours was a happy one- but then, how could it not have been when you were able to get a post like this one out of it?

    • Hi Doug. Whenever your birthday falls, it is a perfect excuse to do something for yourself. Yes, I had an excellent birthday and got a great result (and nice post) out of it. Moreover, unlike last year I didn’t have to first deal with a work commitment.

  6. Happy Birthday and Happy 100th post Ted!
    As usual, we were dazzled by your photos — those beetles are breathtaking. And what a find with that spearhead. We found one that had a similar appearance last year, and stood amazed that we were holding something that had been created by someone so long ago. We found ourselves wondering who that person was and what the landscape might have looked like back then.

    • Thanks, K&R – I really appreciate your kind comments. Like you, I find encounters with ancient artifacts to be moving experiences. I once held a 2+ million year old human fossil – the actual fossil! Talk about spiritual – but that is a story for another post 😉

  7. I thought I already commented on this, but I guess not!

    Happy belated bday, Ted. It looks like you really had a great entomological and archaeological adventure!

  8. Happy Birthday Sir! What a wonderful way to spend it- a fun and productive trip and great pictures. That spear point is incredible… I have never found an arrowhead or artifact after much time afield. And I certainly share your joy for ever present adventures in one’s life… I think keeping a childlike heart is so important, even as we age! 🙂

    • Many thanks, Beau. I think we share many of the enjoyments of life. The good beetle results and spear point were great, but sharing the day with two of my good friends was the tops!


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