The last tiger beetle

Our recent discovery of Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) in Missouri was arguably the most exciting moment that I and colleague/fieldmate Chris Brown have experienced since we first began surveying the tiger beetles of Missouri back in the year 2000.  It was the 24th species that we had recorded for the state and the latest of several for which we had searched through targeted surveys during the past few seasons.  Earlier surveys have already produced a new record for Cicindela trifasciata ascendens (ascendant tiger beetle), “rediscovered” Cylindera cursitans (ant-like tiger beetle) and Dromochorus pruinina (frosted dromo tiger beetle), precisely characterized the limited in-state distributions of Habroscelimorpha circumpicta johnsonii (Johnson’s tiger beetle) and Cicindela obsoleta vulturina (prairie tiger beetle), and generated copious distributional data for the remaining more generally distributed species.

Yet, there still remained one species that we had not managed to find ourselves – Ellipsoptera macra (sandy stream tiger beetle).  This species was recorded from a few localities along the Missouri River in northwestern Missouri by Willis (1967), and we have examined a small number of additional specimens in the Enns Entomology Museum.  According to the literature, this species occurs near the water’s edge on sandy habitats along large rivers – precisely the type of habitats in which we have encountered the closely related E. cuprascens (coppery tiger beetle), which we have found at several locations along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.  Each time we found E. cuprascens we expected/hoped to see E. macra as well but never did.  The reasons for this remained a mystery to us until I noted a comment on the Tiger Beetles of Nebraska website stating that blacklighting is usually more productive for this species than daytime collecting.  With its known occurrence in northwestern Missouri, our planned survey for C. celeripes in that part of the state this season offered a perfect opportunity to try to find this, the last tiger beetle species in Missouri that we had not yet collected ourselves.  Our plan was to search loess hilltop prairie habitats during the day for C. celeripes, then blacklight along the Missouri River at night to look for E. macra.  Both species seemed like longshots – we’d searched for each many times, and we were willing to spend several consecutive weekends from late June to mid-July on our survey so that we could claim that we had given it our best shot.  Of course, as you know, we succeeded in finding C. celeripes on the first day of our first weekend, and we would also enjoy the same success with E. macra later that evening.

Chris Brown looks for Ellipsoptera macra amongst the swarm.

Chris Brown braves the swarm to look for individuals of Ellipsoptera macra.

We setup two blacklights at a public fishing access along the Missouri River (explaining to some puzzled locals exactly what we were doing and why), turned the lights on, and sat back with pizza and merlot as we waited for things to start coming to the sheets.  We had been to this site before in previous years and found E. cuprascens here, suggesting that suitable habitat was present in the area.  Almost immediately a growing cloud of all manner of aquatic insects began swarming around the lights, landing on the sheets – and flying down our shirts and in our hair whenever we tried to approach!  I don’t blacklight as much as I did in my younger days, but even then I wasn’t much of a fan of blacklighting near water for precisely these reasons.  We hadn’t had the lights going for more than 15 minutes or so before we saw the first tiger beetle crawling on the bottom of the sheet below the light.  It looked like cuprascens, but I placed it live in a vial anyway for photographs the next morning.  Then there was another… and another…  Soon, they were coming in with regularity, and I quickly ran out of vials in which to keep live individuals separately.  I’ve never seen tiger beetles come to blacklights like this, but we still weren’t convinced they were E. macra until later that night when we got back to the hotel and had a chance to take a close look at them with good light.  There was no doubt about it – we had finally found E. macra in Missouri!

This species is very similar to E. cuprascens, but the elytra are not as shiny and with smaller, shallower punctures than the latter.  Some references mention a more recurved lower portion of the humeral lunule and a generally more green than bronze coloration (Pearson et al. 2006), but these characters were tenous at best with the specimens we had in hand (see photo below).  The best character we have found to separate the two species is by examining the female elytra – in E. macra the sutural apex is acute, while in E. cuprascens it is rounded (Willis 1967).  We returned to the site the next morning to see if we could find them during the day, and although we did manage to find a few, they were nowhere near as numerous as we had seen them at the blacklights the night before.  The following photograph is of an individual captured that evening and then “released” back into the field the following morning – they were quick to fly once released, and only after several individuals and trying the “lens cap” technique did we succeed in getting some good shots.

Ellipsoptera macra

Ellipsoptera macra

We didn’t get a chance to use blacklights in subsequent weekends to see if we could find E. macra in other localities along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers – with E. macra and C. celeripes success already in hand, I quickly turned my attention to the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri and their gorgeous glade habitats to look for one of North America’s most beautiful cerambycid beetles, Plinthocoelium suaveolens (more on that in a future post).  However, I am confident that E. macra will be found at other spots in Missouri should we decide to look for them with blacklights.  Having encountered all 24 species of tiger beetles known from Missouri, I present here a checklist of those species.

(classification and common names by Erwin and Pearson 2008)

Tetracha (s. str.) carolina carolina – Carolina Metallic Tiger Beetle
Tetracha (s. str.) virginica – Virginia Metallic Tiger Beetle

Cicindela (s. str.) duodecimguttata – 12-spotted Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) formosa generosa – Eastern Sand Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) hirticollis shelfordi – Shelford’s Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) limbalis – Common Claybank Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) purpurea purpurea – Cowpath Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) repanda – Bronzed Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) scutellaris lecontei – LeConte’s Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) sexguttata – Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) splendida – Spendid Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (s. str.) tranquebarica tranquebarica – Oblique-lined Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (Cicindelidia) obsoleta vulturina – Prairie Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (Cicindelidia) punctulata punctulata – Punctured Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (Cicindelidia) rufiventris rufiventris – Eastern Red-bellied Tiger Beetle
Cicindela (Cicindelidia) trifasciata ascendens – Ascendant Tiger Beetle
Cylindera (s. str.) celeripes – Swift Tiger Beetle
Cylindera (s. str.) cursitans – Ant-like Tiger Beetle
Cylindera (s. str.) unipunctata – One-spotted Tiger Beetle
Dromochorus pruinina – Frosted Dromo Tiger Beetle
Ellipsoptera cuprascens – Coppery Tiger Beetle
Ellipsoptera lepida – Ghost Tiger Beetle
Ellipsoptera macra macra – Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle
Habroscelimorpha circumpicta johnsonii – Johnson’s Tiger Beetle

Photo details:
Blacklighting: Canon 17-85mm zoom lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO 100, 1/30 sec, f/11, on-camera flash.
Ellipsoptera macra: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power w/ diffuser caps.


Erwin, T. L. and D. L. Pearson. 2008. A Treatise on the Western Hemisphere Caraboidea (Coleoptera). Their classification, distributions, and ways of life. Volume II (Carabidae-Nebriiformes 2-Cicindelitae). Pensoft Series Faunistica 84. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, 400 pp.

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.

Willis, H. L.  1967. Bionomics and zoogeography of tiger beetles of saline habitats in the central United States (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae).  The University of Kansas Science Bulletin 47(5):145-313.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

22 thoughts on “The last tiger beetle

  1. C O N G R A T U L A T I O N S

    Wonderful adventure story and scientific mini-treatise !!!
    Mission accomplished. Nice photo. Nice post.

    Science, adventure and merlot mixed together in the proper proportions are great companions, are they not?

    That is a very impressive list of tiger beetles.

    With all 24 in hand, what now? Could there possibly be an unreported #25?

    I am looking forward to further reports on the Bumelia Borer.

    • Hi Troy, I’m glad you liked it. I think choice of merlot has been the key to much of my collecting success 🙂

      My gut feeling is that there is no #25, but then I felt the same way about #24 (C. celeripes) and look what happened. There is an unsubstantiated rumor of someone collecting Cicindela patruela in northeastern Missouri – Ron Huber recalls seeing the specimen some years back but has no label data, and I’ve not been successful in my attempts to contact the collector. Missouri – even the northeast corner – would be a significant distributional extension for this upper Midwest species, and the sandy forest habitats that it prefers are quite scarce in northern Missouri. Even a rumor, however, is justification to give it a try.

  2. A lot of critters show up where you least expect them. You just have to go out and find them.
    Pizza, wine and tiger beetles, hmm, who would have thunk it!

  3. Yes, congratulations! I still have fond memories of finding the prairie tiger beetle with you down in Taney County. You’ve come a long way since then! I admire your persistence, dedication to detail, and the fact that you share your experiences here. Thanks!

    • Thank you, Eric, for your very kind comments. I too remember that trip fondly – I had the same feeling of exuberance that comes from first encountering something you’ve been looking for as I did on this trip.

      Poetically, I was in Forsyth twice last month to look for the bumelia borer – my first return to the White River Hills in some time. The prairie tiger beetle was only one of many great memories that those visits sparked, including our dinner at Pizza Cellar in Rockaway Beach. I hadn’t been back since then, so on this most recent trip with my younger daughter I looked for it and found it – we loved it!

  4. Great post Ted! I have light-trapped for years down here in AR for aquatic insects and your post harkened me back to those days! By the way, what is the “lens technique” for photographing beetles?

    • Hi Henry, glad you liked it. Yes, I used to do lots of blacklighting in my earlier days looking for Cerambycidae – I quickly learned to avoid spots close to water after experiencing the hoardes of water scavengers, trichopterans, and chironomids – and to wear tighter fitting clothing!

      The “lens cap” technique is a variation on what Alex Wild calls “The Time-Out Trick” in his “Photo Technique: Working With Ants” article. Flighty insects can sometimes by calmed down a bit by covering them with a camera lens cap for a minute or so – when the cap is removed the insect sometimes continues to sit still for a bit, at least long enough to get a few shots off before it starts scrambling around again. We were lucky to have kept alive a dozen or so individuals from the previous evening. The first few we released flew away immediately, so that’s when we started using the lens cap technique – it worked well enough to get a few shots each of the next two individuals we released. Admittedly, I still had a lingering doubt about their identity at the time, but you can clearly see the spinose sutural apex of the elytra in the photo.

  5. Thanks for sharing this experience Ted- and the lens cap technique. 24 for Missouri… amazing list. I can’t help but wonder when you’ll discover another! And the pizza and merlot… I can identify with that 🙂

    • Thanks, Beau. Yes, 24 is a goodly number for a state our size – not quite like the diversity seen in neighboring states just to the west of us (Nebraska has 32, Colorado has 34), but certainly more diversity than most states to the east.

      Pizza and merlot, steak and cabernet, lamb and malbec – these are the things that make life worth living!

  6. Excellent post, Ted! It’s always exciting to hear of grand new adventures like yours! Beautiful pictures, too, of course. You’re so great at what you do. And your writing is so alive…

    • Ultraviolet – specifically BL lamps and not BLB lamps. The former glow a bright blue color, while the latter glow blue/black due to filtering out of visible light by the glass. BL lamps are far more attractive to insects than BLB lamps.

      Most insects cannot see in red and infra-red wavelengths. That’s why you can cover the glass of an ant farm with red cellophane and the ants will not avoid the light.

  7. Pingback: Summer Insect Collecting iRecap | Beetles In The Bush


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s