North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle

I’ve written a few posts in recent weeks highlighting some of the more interesting finds encountered during two visits this past July to the White River Hills region of extreme southwestern Missouri. It’s a land of extremes, with deeply dissected layers of limestone/dolomite bedrock supporting xeric glades, dry woodlands and riparian watercourses. The hilltop glades (“balds”), in particular, feature prominently in the region’s natural and cultural history and are the most extensive system of such habitat in Missouri. They support a number of plants and animals more characteristic of the grasslands of the south-central U.S., such as the recently featured Megaphasma denticrus and Microstylus morosum, North America’s longest insect and largest robber fly, respectively. Sadly, the glades in this region are much reduced in size and quality compared to their pre-settlement occurrence, primarily due to overgrazing and suppression of fire. These anthropogenic forces have combined to reduce overall vegetational diversity and accelerate encroachment by woody species (chiefly eastern red-cedar, Juniperus virginiana). Nevertheless, there still remain several high quality glade remnants in the area, and the public agencies charged with their conservation are increasingly utilizing mechanical removal of woody growth, controlled burns, and managed grazing in an effort to simulate the natural forces that mediated this landscape for thousands of years.


Chute Ridge Glade, Roaring River State Park, Barry Co., Missouri

My reason for returning to the White River Hills this year was simple—find and photograph the magnificent longhorned beetle, Plinthocoelium suaveolens (family Cerambycidae). This species, occurring across the southern U.S. from Florida and Georgia west to New Mexico and Arizona, is truly one of North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetles due to its large size, brilliant iridescent green coloration, and super-elongate wildly-contrasting orange and black legs.  Until recently, this species was known in Missouri only from sporadic records across the southern part of the state (MacRae 1994). I knew of its association with gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum [= Bumelia lanuginosa], also called gum bully and woolly buckthorn), which was first noted by Missouri’s first State Entomologist, C. V. Riley (1880) and later discussed in detail by Linsley and Hurd (1959) and Turnbow and Hovore (1979); however, my repeated searches over the years whenever I encoutered this plant came up empty.  A few years ago, Chris Brown and I were conducting a survey of tiger beetles in the White River Hills and noted the relatively common occurrence of bumelia on these glades.  Bumelia, like P. suaveolens, is one of only a few North American representatives of a largely tropical group, and it is one of the few woody species naturally adapted to the xeric conditions found on these glades.  Recalling the association of P. suaveolens with this plant, and also recalling that adults could be attracted to fermenting baits of the type described by Champlain and Knull (1932), we placed fermenting bait traps on several glades in the area and succeeded in trapping a number of individuals during the month of July.  When I began searching the bumelia trees at these glades, I found adults perching on the lower trunks of several trees. It was the first time I’d seen live individuals of this species in Missouri.  At the time I was not a photographer, and that experience became one of the many moments that I would later look back upon and think, “If only I’d taken a picture of that!”  Thus, at the end of June this year, having successfully found Cylindera celeripes in Missouri on the first day of a planned 3-week search, my attention immediately turned to the new goal of finding P. suaveolens and photographing it on its host plant.


Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia) at Blackjack Knob, Taney Co., Missouri

I knew this wouldn’t be easy—the beetles were not abundant when I had last observed them, and those that I did find were quite wary to my approach.  Getting within striking distance with a net was one thing; doing so with a camera and macro lens would be another thing entirely.  In my first trip to the area (early July), I went to Chute Ridge Glade, a magnificently restored glade in Roaring River State Park where I had seen the greatest number of individuals before.  I was full of optimism on that first day as I zigzagged across the rough terrain from one bumelia tree to the next, but my optimism began to wane as I cautiously approached each tree and saw nothing.  Within an hour, I’d looked at every bumelia tree I could find on the glade and not even seen a beetle, much less attempted a photograph.  It would take a 2-hour drive along twisting back roads to reach the other sizeable glade complex where I had seen beetles before (Blackjack Knob in Taney County), and another hour of searching on several dozen trees would again yield nothing.  By now I was feeling rather frustrated—the day’s oppressive heat and humidity had taken its toll, and my 4.5-hour drive from St. Louis was looling like it would be for naught.  I had noted that the bumelia flowers were almost but not quite open yet—perhaps it was too early in the season still?  

Plinthocoelium suaveolens larval frass pile at the base of living Sideroxylon lanuginosa

Plinthocoelium suaveolens larval frass pile at trunk base of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

The remnant glades at Blackjack Knob are more extensive than those at Chute Ridge, so many more trees still awaited examination—if I could only muster the energy!  I trudged back to the truck, guzzled a nice, cold Powerade, and started off in another direction.  I looked at a number of trees and still had seen no sign of the beetle, but on one particular tree I noticed an enormous pile of sawdust on the ground at the base of the tree.  I looked at it more closely and saw that it had the rough, granular texture so characteristic of longhorned beetle larvae that like to keep their galleries clean, and its bright, moist  color suggested that it was being ejected by a larva tunneling through living wood.  I looked up into the tree above the pile to find where it was coming from but could find no ejection hole.  I checked the base of the trunk itself and still couldn’t find anything.  Then I started poking into the pile and felt a root.  Further poking revealed a soft spot on the root, and I immediately knew that I had found a P. suaveolens larval gallery—no other cerambycid species is known to bore in roots of living Sideroxylon, especially one as large as this based on the size of the frass pile.  I hurried back to the truck and grabbed my hatchet, returned to the tree, and scraped away the soil above the root to find an obvious ejection hole a few inches away from the base of the trunk.  I started chipped into the root at the ejection hole and found a large, clean gallery extending down the center of the root away from the trunk.  About 18” away from the trunk I found it—a large, creamy-white cerambycid larva.

Plinthocoelium suavelones larva in root of living Sideroxylon lanuginosa

Plinthocoelium suaveolens larva in root of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Plinthocoelium suavelones larva in root of living Sideroxylon lanuginosa

Plinthocoelium suaveolens larva in root of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Finding a P. suaveolens larva was gratifying, but it wasn’t what I had come here to do, which was photograph the adult. After placing the larva live in a vial for preservation later on (dropping into scalding water to “fix” the proteins and prevent discoloration when stored in 70% ethanol), I continued searching the trees for adults.  I found one tree on which the flowers were just barely beginning to open and collected a few of the pedestrian species of scarabs that are attracted to bumelia flowers in droves when fully open (e.g. Cotinis nitidus and Trigonopeltastes delta)—for the record.  There was still no sign of adult Plinthocoelium, and I was on the verge of calling it a day when I approached another tree and saw it!  I froze, then slowly geared up with the camera and started stalking slowly towards it.  It was not in a very convenient location, down low on the trunk and partially screened by foreground vegetation.  I got close enough to start attempting some shots—not ideally composed, but just to ensure that I had something before I tried to get any closer.  After the third shot, however, it became alarmed and started to flee, and I had no choice but to capture it for a “studio backup.”  That taste of success gave me the motivation to resume my search, but no additional beetles were seen before a dropping sun put an end to the day.

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on lower trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on lower trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Not entirely satisfied with the shots that I’d gotten, I returned to Blackjack Knob the following day and also searched some of the extensive habitat at nearby Hercules Glades Wilderness.  I wouldn’t see another beetle the entire day, although encountering a nice series of Cicindela rufiventris (red-bellied tiger beetle) was some consolation for suffering the day’s oppressive heat and humidity.  I still had the live beetle, so I placed my hopes on getting better photographs of the beetle in confinement after returning home.  That would not come to pass—the beetle refused to sit obligingly on the stick I placed in the large screen cage, and instead clung to the cage itself.  For days I watched it, giving it honey-water for sustenance and waiting for an opportunity to photograph it on the stick on which it refused to sit.  It became clear to me that studio photographs, at least in the manner I was attempting, would not be possible.  Not entirely satisfied with having seen only a single beetle on my trip, and thinking that I may have been too early based on the flowering phenology of the bumelia host trees, I did what any dedicated entomologist would do—I made a second trip to the area two weeks later!

I didn’t mess with Chute Ridge Glade this time, instead making a beeline for Blackjack Knob right away.  Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperatively drizzley (I would have preferred hot and humid to rain!).  Nevertheless, daughter Madison and I made our way to the glades and began inspecting the trees that I had just examined two weeks earlier.  I noted immediately that the bumelias were now in full flower, and it wasn’t long before I saw the first adult flying into these flowers.  Exciting for sure, and this was a good sign to see an active adult despite the drizzly weather, but the situation of the beetle on a high branch left no possibility for photographs (and only with a rather acrobatic swing of my fully extended net handle amidst a jumble of dead branches was I able to capture it).  This same scenario would replay several times over the next two hours before rain finally drove us back to the car.  In total, we saw half a dozen active adults, but in each case they were seen flying to flowers on high branches and could not be photographed.  Despite that disappointment, I’ll never forget the spectacularity of seeing these beetles in flight—shimmering green and bold orange, with legs and antennae spread wide in all directions.  I was also fortunate to find another tree with a fresh frass pile at its base indicating an active larva.  This time, I cut the tree some inches above the ground and extracted the trunk base and root intact for transplanting into a large soil box upon my return home.  The appearance of new frass on the soil surface afterwards confirmed that I had gotten the root containing the larva and that it had survived the extraction and transplanting.  Hopefully I will be able to successfully rear this individual to adulthood.

Despite the rain, we then went back to Hercules Glades Wilderness to see if luck would follow suite there as it had at Blackjack Knob.  It didn’t, as rain continued to doggedly pursue us, but the day was not a total loss as daughter and I got in a nice 7-mile hike through some of Missouri’s most ruggedly scenic terrain and were rewarded with the sighting of a western pygmy rattlesnake.  The next day was sunny, much to our delight, and I considered going back to Blackjack Knob where we had seen a good number of adults the previous day.  In the end, I decided I’d played that card and rather than continue trying for photographs I’d rather see if the beetle could be found at another glade complex further to the east at Long Bald Glade Natural Area in Caney Mountain Conservation Area.  Things didn’t look promising, as I found bumelia trees occurring only sporadically across the main glade complex—with no sign of the beetles.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the day and spent a bit of time chasing after some enormous robber flies that later proved to be Microstylum morosum, a new record for Missouri and a significant northeastern range extension.  I thought that would be the highlight of the day, but as we were heading back to the car I spotted a small glade relict on the other side of the road.  It was overgrown and encroached, apparently not receiving the same management attention as the glades in the main complex. Regardless, I went over to check it out and immediately spotted several bumelia trees amongst the red-cedars, and within minutes I saw a beetle—low on the trunk of a very small bumelia tree!  Once again I froze, then slowly geared up with the camera and began my ultra-cautious approach (remember, this was only my second photo chance after a combined four days in the field).  Like last time, I took one shot while still some distance away, then moved in for closer attempts.  Unlike last time, there was no bothersome vegetation cluttering the view, and when I moved in for closeups the beetle turned around, crawled up the trunk a short distance, and then paused.  I snapped off a small series of shots while it sat there, and then suddenly it became alarmed and flew away.  Though still not perfect, these photographs were better than the previous ones I had obtained (check out the pronotal armature in the last photo!), and the finding of this species at Long Bald Glades also represented a new county record.

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Plinthocoelium suaveolens on trunk of living Sideroxylon lanuginosum

Missouri populations are assignable to the nominotypical subspecies (southeastern U.S.), which is distinguished from subspecies plicatum (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico) by the bronze or cupreous tints and weak transverse rugae on the pronotum (Linsley 1964).  The distributional ranges of the two subspecies intermingle in northeastern Texas.

Photo details:
All photos: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D
Photo 1 (Chute Ridge Glade): normal mode, ISO-400, 1/250 sec, f/16, natural light.
Photo 2 (Sideroxylon lanuginosum): landscape mode, ISO-100, 1/160 sec, f/6.3, natural light.
Photos 3 (P. suaveolens larval frass pile), 6—8 (P. suaveolens adult): manual mode, ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/9-11, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps (photo 7 slightly cropped).
Photos 4—5 (P. suaveolens larva): manual mode, ISO-100, 1/60 sec, f/14 (closeup f/25), MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.


Champlain, A. B. and J. N. Knull.  1932.  Fermenting bait traps for trapping Elateridae and Cerambycidae (Coleop.).  Entomological News 43(10):253–257.

Linsley, E. G. 1964.  The Cerambycidae of North America. Part V. Taxonomy and classification of the subfamily Cerambycinae, tribes Callichromini through Ancylocerini.  University of California Publicatons in Entomology, 22:1—197, 60 figs., 1 pl.

Linsley, E. G. and P. D. Hurd, Jr.  1959.  The larval habits of Plinthocoelium suaveolens plicatum (LeConte).  Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences 58(1):27–33.

MacRae, T. C. 1994. Annotated checklist of the longhorned beetles (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae and Disteniidae) known to occur in Missouri. Insecta Mundi 7(4) (1993):223–252.

MacRae, T. C. and M. E. Rice. 2007. Distributional and biological observations on North American Cerambycidae (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 61(2): 227–263.

Riley, C. V.  1880.  Food habits of the longicorn beetles or wood borers.  The American Entomologist 3(10):237–239.

Turnbow, R. H. Jr. and F. T. Hovore.  1979.  Notes on Cerambycidae from the southeastern U. S.  Entomological News 90(5):219–229.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Assassin ate


I came upon this interesting scene last month while hiking through Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park, which preserves some of the highest quality remnants of sand scrub habitat on the Lake Wales Ridge of central Florida. The spider seems to be Peucetia viridans (green lynx spider), widespread across the southern U.S. and distinguished by its bright transparent green color with red spots and black spines (Emerton 1961). These largest of North American lynx spiders hunt diurnally on low shrubs with an agility excelled only by the jumping spiders (Salticidae) and aggressively attack their insect prey. In this case, the prey is one of the so-called “bee assassins” of the genus Apiomerus (Hemiptera: Reduviidae). The common and generic names of these insects both derive from their habit of preying upon bees, not only on flowers but also by ambushing them at nest entrances, although other insects are preyed upon as well. Ironically, this particular assassin himself got ate.

An interesting situation was uncovered while I tried to determine which species of Apiomerus was represented by the prey. By virtue of its pale ventrals with the front and hind margins black, it keys to A. spissipes in a literature-based key to Florida Reduviidae (Bierle et al. 2002) – one of two species considered widely distributed across the eastern U.S. In reality, however, it appears that this individual represents another species named almost 30 years ago but which remains officially undescribed. As explained in this BugGuide post by Daniel Swanson, the genus was revised by Berkeley grad student Sigurd Leopold Szerlip in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Ph.D., who proposed a number of taxonomic acts including the description of 19 new species. Among these were eastern U.S. populations to which the name A. spissipes had been applied, with those in Florida being described as the new species “A. floridensis“. However, dissertations do not meet the criteria of publication according to Article 8 of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN 1999), and none of the dissertation was formally published. Thus, “A. floridensis” remains an invalid, unpublished name.  This is a most unfortunate situation, as Swanson considers the dissertation to be well done.  It is not only names, but important information about life histories and detailed genitalic studies that remain unavailable to the scientific community as well.  What are the nomenclatural impacts of this work remaining unpublished?  Is this as much a failure by the advising professor as by Szerlip himself?  What ethical considerations would need to be addressed in order for it to be published in absentia, or is this even possible?

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.


Bierle, S., E. Dunn, S. Frederick, S. Garrett, J. Harbison, D. Hoel, B. Ley and S. Weihman. 2002. A literature-based key to Reduviidae (Heteroptera) of Florida (assassin bugs, and thread-legged bugs). Unpublished manuscript, University of Florida, Department of Entomology and Nematolgy, Insect Classification ENY 4161/6166, 18 pp.

Emerton, J. H. 1961. The Common Spiders of the United States. Dover Publications, Inc., N.Y., xx + 227 pp.

International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature [ICZN]. 1999. International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, 4th Edition. The International Trust for Zoological Nomenclature, c/o Natural History Museum, London. xxix + 306 pp.

Szerlip, S. L. 1980. Biosystematic revision of the genus Apiomerus (Hemiptera: Reduviidae) in North and Central America. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of California, Berkley, CA.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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North America’s largest robber fly

Female Microstylum morosum perched on fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) bush

Female Microstylum morosum perched on fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)

A few days ago, I featured Promachus hinei, one of the so-called “giant robber flies” and a common inhabitant of the glades and grasslands that dot Missouri’s largely forested landscape. That individual was seen at Long Bald Glade Natural Area in Caney Mountain Conservation Area, one of the many limestone glades that are a prominent feature of extreme southwestern Missouri’s White River Hills, as it snacked on a small carpenter bee (Ceratina sp.) and posed obligingly for a series of super close-up photographs. Promachus and its congeners are impressively large; however, I would see an even larger robber fly that day. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but I knew that never before had I seen such a magnificent fly, with its large, shimmering, emerald eyes, streamlined body almost devoid of setae (hairs), and ludicrously large size. These monsters were actually quite common at the glade, so I failed to appreciate the significance of what I was seeing as I chased one after another – more intent on securing photographs than specimens. This was not an easy task – they were extremely wary, rarely allowing me to approach within 12 feet no matter how cautiously and slowly I moved. Not one to back down from such a challenge (remember, I stalk tiger beetles), I persisted, traversing the rough, rock-strewn terrain amidst clumps of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) until, at last, I got within striking distance of the impressive female shown in these photos. Taking flight before I felt assured of a good shot, I followed her repeated long, loping escape flights until I was able to get another few shots and she disappeared for good.

Same individual as in previous photo after flying to another perch.

Same individual as in previous photo after flying to another perch.

It didn’t take long after I returned home to figure out what I had seen, as there is really nothing that can be mistaken for Microstylum morosum, North America’s largest robber fly (Back 1909)¹. At 35–40 mm of length, this individual didn’t quite match the astounding 50-mm upper body length for the species (that’s 2 inches, folks!). Nonetheless, it was an impressive beast indeed! It is not surprising that North America’s largest robber fly should be a species of Microstylum, as it is this same genus that contains the world’s largest robber fly – the aptly named M. magnum from Madagascar, with a body length of 60 mm and an almost preposterous wingspan of up to 84 mm (that’s over 3 inches folks!). I don’t know if any flies exist that are larger than this, but certainly none can be more imposing.  While I’m happy with the photos that I did obtain, I must confess some disappointment that I wasn’t able to get more than these basic lateral profile shots.  Of the several photographs of this species that can be found on the web, this female, photographed by Greg Lavaty of Houston, Texas, is (in my humble opinion) certainly the most stunning.

¹ Puzzled by the use of the prefix “micro” in the genus name – hardly seeming appropriate for such an enormous fly – I asked Eric Fisher (retired, California Department of Food and Agriculture) about the name’s derivation, to which he replied, “The name refers to the quite small ‘stylus’ of the antenna apex; Macquart specifically mentions this character in his 1838 original description of the genus. (This is not a very helpful diagnostic character, as many asilids share this feature…).”

Even more significant than its size, however, was its very occurrence on this glade. Like Ospriocerus abdominalis, which I had seen just a few weeks earlier in the Loess Hills of extreme northwestern Missouri, M. morosum is a denizen of the Great Plains, and also like that species it has until now not been known from Missouri. That’s right – another new state record!  Unlike O. abdominalis, however, the Missouri occurrence of M. morosus represents a significant northeastern extension of its known range.  The species was long considered a Texas endemic until Beckemeyer and Charlton (2000) confirmed its occurrence in southeastern Arizona and documented significant range extensions into Oklahoma, Kansas, extreme southeastern Colorado, and extreme northeastern New Mexico.  Its eastern distributional limit was thought to occur along a north-south line from Douglas County, Kansas to Mayes County, Oklahoma to Brazoria County, Texas; however, Warriner (2004) documented its occurrence some 200 miles east of this line in the blackland prairies of southwestern Arkansas.  The occurrence of M. morosum in the White River Hills of Missouri represents yet another significant eastern extension of its known range – Long Bald Glade lies 185 miles NNE of the collection site in Arkansas and 155 miles ENE of the nearest known record in Mayes County, Oklahoma (Locust Grove), making it the easternmost known locality for this species.

As in Arkansas, where the collection site represents one of the highest quality blackland prairie remants in the state, Long Bald Glade represents a high quality remnant of the limestone glades that once occurrred much more extensively within Missouri’s White River Hills.  Like the blackland prairie of Arkansas, the limestone glades of the White River Hills have been dramatically reduced since EuroAmerican settlement due to land use conversion, and fire suppression and overgrazing of the remaining tracts have resulted in significant woody encroachment – chiefly by eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – and loss of vegetational diversity. This has caused dramatic reductions in populations of the many Great Plains plant and animal species that are found here and nowhere else in the state.  Considering the overall distribution of M. morosum, it is unlikely that it occurs more extensively within Missouri than the White River Hills, emphasizing the importance of continued conservation and restoration activities in this unique part of Missouri.  However, since the White River Hills extend into northwestern Arkansas, M. morosum may occur in that part of Arkansas as well as the southwestern part of the state.

I thank Eric Fisher and Herschel Raney for confirming the identity of this species and its status as a new record for Missouri.

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/10-11, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.


Back, E. A. 1909. The robberflies of America, north of Mexico, belonging to the subfamilies Leptograstrinae and Dasypogoninae. Transactions of the American Entomological Society 35:137–400.

Beckemeyer, R. J. and R. E. Carlton.  2000.  Distribution of Microstylum morosum and M. galactoides (Diptera: Asilidae): significant extensions to previously reported ranges.  Entomological News 111(2):84–96.

Warriner, M. D.  2004.  First Arkansas record of the robber fly Microstylum morosum (Diptera: Asilidae).  The Southwestern Naturalist 49(1):83–84.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Prey bee mine

Promachus hinei preying upon a small carpenter bee

Promachus hinei preying upon a small carpenter bee

Robber flies of the genus Promachus – the so-called “giant robber flies” – are among the more conspicuous and fearless predators seen in Missouri’s glades. Able to capture almost any flying insect regardless of size, this individual – seen at Long Bald Glade Natural Area in Caney Mountain Conservation Area – was found snacking on what, according to my hymenopterist friend Mike Arduser, appears to be a female individual of the genus Ceratina (the so-called small carpenter bees in the family Apidae). Of the three “tiger-striped” (referring to the yellow and black striping of the abdomen) species of Promachus in the eastern U.S. species, P. hinei is the most common in Missouri. It is distinguished from the more southeastern P. rufipes by its reddish versus black femora and from the more northern P. vertebratus by the larger dark areas dorsally on the abdominal segments and distinctly contrasting two-toned legs. Despite their common name and impressive size, however, they are not the largest robber flies that can be seen in these glades…

Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Ant-like Tiger Beetle

Fig. 1.  Adult female Cylindera cursitans

Fig. 1. Adult female Cylindera cursitans

One of the more recent of the 24 species of tiger beetles that we’ve collected in Missouri is Cylindera cursitans (Ant-like Tiger Beetle).  Although not yet formally recorded from the state, we’ve known about its occurrence here for some time now based on a single specimen deposited in the Enns Entomology Museum (University of Missouri).  With no more locality information to go on than the frustratingly vague “nr. Portageville,” my colleague Chris Brown and I made several attempts over the years to look for this species – eventually deciding that one particular spot where the highway stretched east of Portageville and dead-ended at the Mississippi River was the most likely collection site.  This locality, which we would come to call the “end of the hiway” spot (I suspect that every state with at least one tiger beetle aficionado has one or more so-named spots), proved to be a true tiger beetle “hot-spot,” with no less than 8 species of tiger beetles found along its sandy banks in our first few surveys.  However, C. cursitans was not among them, and success would only come with a little bit of serendipity when I received an email in 2007 from Kent Fothergill.  Kent explained that he had learned of me from my Missouri Tigers article (MacRae and Brown 2001), offered some comments about the tiger beetles that he had been finding since his recent move to southeast Missouri, and included full label data from the tiger beetles in the small collection of the Delta Research Center where his then-fianceé had secured a position as a research entomologist.  I wrote Kent back, thanked him for the data, and added this plea for assistance:

There is a single specimen of Cicindela cursitans in the UMC collection, it was collected in “nr. Portageville” on July 7, 1991.  We have tried several times without success to locate this species in Missouri – it’s the only species that we have not relocated.  If you have any interest in looking for it that would be great.  Attached is a pdf of recent paper describing its habits and biology in Nebraska.

Fig. 2.  Adult female Cylindera cursitans ovipositing into substrate.

Fig. 2. Adult female Cylindera cursitans ovipositing in moist sand/loam substrate.

Little did I know how catalytic that comment would be – the very next day I received an email from Kent not only stating that he found it, but that he found it at the “end of the hiway” spot where we thought it might be.  A digital photo confirmed its identity, and the that weekend I blasted down to meet Kent and see the beetle for myself.  I would see just two beetles that day, but both were at a new locality about one mile south of where Kent had originally spotted them.  Kent would later find them at yet another locality further north along the Mississippi River, and in 2008 the three of us (Kent, Chris, and myself) conducted an intensive survey of potential habitats in southeastern Missouri that identified additional populations both north and south of the original localities.  We concluded that populations of C. cursitans, were restricted in southeast Missouri to the ribbons of wet bottomland forest that occupy the narrow corridor between the Mississippi River and the levees that confine it. However, the populations appeared secure and likely did not require any immediate conservation measures to ensure their long-term survival within the state. 

Fig. 3.  Adult male Cylindera cursitans.

Fig. 3. Adult male Cylindera cursitans.

The bottomland forests that harbor C. cursitans in southeast Missouri (Fig. 3) contrast sharply with the wet meadow habitats reported for populations in Nebraska (Brust et al. 2005a). Within these habitats, the beetles themselves are very easily overlooked because of their small size and rapid running capabilities.  In addition, adult activity peaks in June and begin to wane in July.  The combination of these factors explains our initial difficulty in finding the beetle; however, with a proper search image and better understanding of its temporal occurrence and habitat preference, we have since found the beetles to be rather easily located.  A lingering question from last year’s survey is, how far north along the Mississippi River does C. cursitans occur? Furthermore, might the species also occur in northeast Missouri due to its proximity to the Nebraska populations?  Most of Missouri straddles a curious distributional gap that separates the bottomland forest dwelling populations in the southeast from the wet meadow dwelling populations in the upper Great Plains (Hoback and Riggins 2001). This has led some authors to suggest that the observed distribution represents two disjunct forms and potentially two species (Ron Huber, pers. comm.). Additional surveys of potential habitat further north along the Mississippi River and in northwest Missouri along the Missouri River could prove useful in confirming or refuting that suggestion. 

Fig. 3.  Habitat for Cylindera cursitans, along Mississippi River, vic. Donaldson Point Conservation Area, New Madrid Co., Missouri.

Fig. 4. Habitat for Cylindera cursitans, along Mississippi River, vic. Donaldson Point Conservation Area, New Madrid Co., Missouri.

While such surveys were not possible this year, long-time fieldmate Rich Thoma and I were able to visit the Southeastern Lowlands in June to examine a few habitats along the Mississippi River found a little further north of the northernmost extent of our 2008 survey area. We succeeded in finding another population at one of these sites near the northern limit of the Southeastern Lowlands.  The individuals shown here (Figs. 1-3) were collected from that location (extreme northeastern Mississippi Co.), confined on local sand/loam substrate, and photographed a few days later.  In one of the photos (Fig. 2), a female can be seen in the act of ovipositing into a hole dug into the substrate with her ovipositor.  The more observant readers might notice a strong resemblance between this species and another species to which I have devoted several posts, Cylindera celeripes (Swift Tiger Beetle).  These two species are, in fact, quite closely related and can be distinguished by characters of the elytra (posterior portion not or only slightly expanded and lateral white maculations complete in cursitans, distinctly expanded and maculations reduced in celeripes) (Pearson et al. 2006), habitat (cursitans in moist lowland sites, celeripes in dry upland sites), and distribution (southeast Nebraska/southwest Iowa is the only area where the distributions of these two species overlap, although C. celeripes has not been seen in Nebraska for nearly 100 years! (Brust et al. 2005b)).

Photo details:
Figs. 1-3: Canon 100mm macro lens with Kenco extension tubes (68mm) on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/18, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.
Fig. 4: Panasonic DMC-FX3 (landscape mode), ISO-100, 1/25 sec, f/2.8, natural light.


Brust, M., W. Hoback and C. B. Knisley.  2005a.  Biology, habitat preference, and larval description of Cicindela cursitans LeConte (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae).  The Coleopterists Bulletin 59(3):379-390.

Brust, M. L., S. M. Spomer and W. W. Hoback.  2005b.  Tiger Beetles of Nebraska.  University of Nebraska at Kearney. (Version 5APR2005).


Hoback, W. W. and J. L. Riggins.  2001.  Tiger beetles of the United States.  Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online. (Version 12DEC2003).

MacRae, T. C., and C. R. Brown. 2001. Missouri Tigers. Missouri Conservationist 62(6):14–19.

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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A bit of housekeeping

I hope you’ll forgive the lack of pretty bug pictures and witty prose in today’s post – I have a few updates and adminstrative issues that I’d like to take care of.

Circus of the Spineless
This notice is a few days late, but Circus of the Spineless # 43 is up at Wanderin’ Weeta.  Susannah has done a great job of assembling blog posts on a diversity of invertebrates from anemones to annelids, bryozoans to barnacles, decapods to gastropods, and of course – insects.  In the latter group, all of the major orders are covered (including beetles by some guy that likes tiger beetles).

Expanded Blogroll
It has been quite a while since I last made mention of new additions to my ever-expanding blogroll.  I’m trying to maintain a fairly comprehensive list of blogs that either focus primarily on insects or feature compelling natural history discussions, and it seems that almost every week I find another one that either began recently or somehow escaped my earlier attention.  A few of these more recent additions deserve special mention for their interesting subjects, superior writing, quality photographic content, etc.

Rate My Posts
WordPress has a new widget that allows readers to rate the quality of posts.  I thought I would open myself up to this potential for praise or criticism and have activated this feature on this blog (and also my other blog, Bikes Bugs and Bones).  It’s a little jickery in that the “comments” link must be clicked in order to see the rating widget, which appears at the bottom of the post as 5 blank stars.  It’s a typical rating scale, with 1 star being the worst and 5 stars being the best.  I know a lot of readers don’t like to leave comments (although I heartily encourage them), but perhaps you would be willing to provide feedback in the form of a rating.  The ratings are completely anonymous – no IP addresses are recorded by the rating widget, so there is no way for me to know who voted or how.  Over time, as ratings accumulate for posts, I will be able to see what kinds of posts people really like (and which they really don’t).  This can be your way to contribute to the future direction of this blog!

  • 5 Stars = Excellent – use this for my very best pieces.
  • 4 Stars = Very Good – you really liked it, maybe just minor criticisms.
  • 3 Stars = Average – not bad, not great, it did the job.
  • 2 Stars = Fair – not one of my better pieces, a bad day perhaps.
  • 1 Star = Poor – well, let’s just hope I don’t get too many of these.

Editorial Duties
One of my long term goals is to be Managing Editor for an entomological journal.  Despite the volunteer nature of such a position, it’s not one that somebody can just walk into – dues must be paid.  I got a foot in the door a few years ago when I began serving as Coleoptera Subject Editor for The Pan-Pacific Entomologist, the journal of the Pacific Coast Entomological Society (we would welcome your manuscript dealing with western entomology in any aspect).  It has been an enjoyable experience, and I guess I’m doing a decent job since I was invited this summer to join the editorial team of the online journal Zootaxa.  This “mega-journal for zoological taxonomists in the world” has quickly become the leading journal for new taxa and taxonomic or nomenclatural acts, based on the coverage and indexing of Zoological Record since 2004.  This is possible only because of its team of 141 editors that cover the entire breadth of animal taxa – 17 of which (including me) handle the vast insect order Coleoptera.  Ever the glutton for punishment, I’ve also just accepted an invitation by the Webster Groves Nature Study Society to take over editorship of their monthly newsletter, Nature Notes.  I suppose the combination of these three editorial positions will let me know if I really want to pursue full editorship of a major journal at some point!

Okay, I can’t leave you without any kind of photograph – here are a couple of shots of Cicindela scutellaris, or festive tiger beetle. This male individual represents the stunningly beautiful nominotypical subspecies occupying the western part of the species’ range – it was photographed on sand exposures in shinnery oak shrubland habitat at Packsaddle Wildlife Management Area in extreme northwestern Oklahoma this past June.



Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO-100, 1/250 sec, f/14-16, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

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North America’s smallest rattlesnake

Despite tramping through the brush with great frequency during most of my life, I haven’t really seen that many noteworthy reptiles.  I don’t know whether its because I’ve failed to actually encounter them or whether my singleminded obsession with insects above all other things natural has instead prevented me from seeing what was right in front of me.  Regardless of the reason, all that has seemed to change during the past two seasons (strangely coincident with my decision to start carrying a camera), and I now seem to be enjoying a bit of a reptile bonanza.  Last summer I featured a super-aggressive prairie rattlesnake from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota and an uncooperative dusty hognosed snake from Missouri’s critically imperiled sand prairies (both first-time sightings for me).  The reptilian treats continued this year – I saw my first juvenile Osage copperhead in May to go along with the several adults that I’ve encountered, and shortly afterwards during a June trip to northwestern Oklahoma I was treated to a gorgeous male eastern collard lizard, two Texas horned lizards, and a much more cooperative western hognosed snake (the last two being first-time sightings for me).  There was another herp that I saw during that Oklahoma trip, but I did not feature it here because I had stupidly declined to strap the camera bag to my back during a quick look at a roadside habitat.  That sighting was another first-timer for me – a western pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliaris streckeri).  I’m no herp expert, so wasn’t sure what it was at the time, but I later learned that its small size and distinctive markings were quite diagnostic.

Western pygmy rattlesnake – Sistrurus miliarius streckeri

Amazingly, I encountered this same species again just a few weeks later during a visit to the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri.  It was during the second of two trips to the region to search for the stunningly beautiful bumelia longhorned beetle, Plinthocoelium suaveolens plicatum (family Cerambycidae), and the weather during that day – continuous drizzle and low, threatening clouds – had not been at all conducive for finding such a sun loving beetle.  After searching an area where I knew the beetles occurred, without success, daughter Madison and I resigned that the drizzle was here to stay and decided to pass the rest of the day with some hiking at one of Missouri’s most spectacularly wild and beautiful places, Hercules Glades Wilderness.  A splendid mix of post oak savannahs and limestone glades intersperses through the oak/hickory forests in these rugged hills, creating some of Missouri’s most scenic vistas.  Near the end of the hike at the edge of one of these glades on the high point of Coy Bald, I saw this little individual coiled up underneath an eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) tree.  Unlike the terrifyingly aggressive prairie rattlesnakes I encountered in South Dakota last fall, this snake seem to be relying upon its cryptic coloration to avoid detection, rattling only after I had approached quite closely… or maybe it was only then I could actually hear the rattle, which was barely audible and sounded much like the buzz of a small katydid.

Pygmy rattlesnakes are the smallest rattlesnakes in North America, growing to around 15-25 inches long – this individual looked to be about 18-20 inches in length.  They are one of only two U.S. species in the primitive rattlesnake genus Sistrurus – the other being the larger wet prairie inhabiting massasauga (S. catenatus).  All other rattlesnakes (28 species, 13 in the U.S.) belong to the genus Crotalus (Smith et al. 2001).  Western pygmy rattlesnakes are not really a western U.S. species, but rather the westernmost subspecies of this southeastern U.S. species (with subspecies miliarius and streckeri occupying the northeastern and southeastern portions, respectively, of its range).  In Missouri, it is not nearly as common as the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), occurring only in the extreme southern Ozarks along the border with Arkansas and up into the St. Francois Mountains of the eastern Ozarks (Johnson 1997).  Although no known human deaths have ever been caused by this species, known locally as the “ground rattler,” it is nevertheless poisonous and worthy of respect.  I must admit to having been lulled a little bit by its calmness – much like the juvenile copperhead I photographed in May – and found myself tempted to approach ever closer for photographs.  The photograph below represents the closest that I was able to get before it began “striking” at me – whether these were bluff strikes intended to frighten or actual attempts to bite I do not know.  Suffice it to say that I “got the message” and ended my attempts to get even closer.  Daughter Madison watched in nervous amazement as all this was going on, and afterwards I tried to impress upon her young, virgin mind what a rare and wonderful experience we’d just had.  Perhaps I succeeded, as this was the first story she told to her head-shaking mother upon our return home the following evening!


Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/9-10, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.


Johnson, T. R. 1997. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 368 pp.

Smith, H. M., E. D. Brodie, D. M. Dennis and S. Barlowe. 2001. Reptiles of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Golden Field Guide from St. Martin’s Press, New York, 240 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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