Warning: post contains hardcore, taxonomic, sciencey geekiness!

Just as there is seasonality in the lives of insects, there is seasonality in the work of those who study them.  For the collector/taxonomist, everything revolves around the collecting season — time spent on anything else is time not available for collecting. As a result, I spend a good deal of my time during the summer in the field and on its associated planning and organizing activities, leaving the winter months for processing and identifying collected specimens, incorporating them into the permanent collection, generating reports to fulfill permit requirements, and ultimately preparing manuscripts for publication — the raison d’être.  Winter is also the time when I identify specimens sent to me by other collectors.  I do this not only because I’m such a nice guy (at least I hope I am), but also because such material often contains species I haven’t seen before or that represent new distributions and host plant associations that I can use to augment the results of my own studies.  Such work has occupied much of my time during the past several weeks, and I now find myself close to finishing the last of the nearly dozen batches of beetles sent to me since the end of last winter.

Of the three groups of beetles that I actively study — jewel beetles, longhorned beetles, and tiger beetles — it is the jewel beetles that are taxonomically the most challenging.  Tiger beetles can often be indentified in the field (especially with the publication of Pearson et al. (2006), or “the Bible” among cicindelophiles), and North American longhorned beetles have been reasonably well worked by a strong contingent of both professional and amateur taxonomists over the past several decades.  Jewel beetles on the other hand, despite their dazzling colors and popularity with collectors, continue to befuddle even the most dedicated collectors due to their extreme variability and poorly-defined species limits.  Of the 822 species and subspecies known from North America, fully three-fifths of them belong to one of just three hyperdiverse genera — Acmaeodera, Agrilus, and Chrysobothris.  No recent taxonomic treatments are available for any of these genera, thus, identifying species belonging to them requires access to primary literature, a well-represented and authoritatively-identified reference collection, and extraordinary patience!  This is particularly true of the genus Acmaeodera, the North American members of which were last treated collectively more than a century ago (Fall 1899) (at which time less than half of the current 149 species/subspecies were known to science).  The recent explosion of web-based images has helped matters (a particularly useful site for those interested in North American Acmaeodera is Acmaeoderini Orbis, with its galleries of Harvard type specimens and BugGuide photos); however, images are still lacking for many species, and others are not easily distinguished from the images that do exist.

Acmaeodera robigo Knull (Val Verde Co., Texas)

It is precisely this taxonomic challenge, however, that makes the group so interesting to me.  Opportunities for discovery abound, as basic information is incomplete or totally lacking for many species regarding their geographical ranges and life histories.  One of the species I encountered in a batch of material sent to me by cerambycid-specialist Jeff Huether contained three specimens that I eventually determined to represent Acmaeodera robigo.  Josef Knull (1954) first described this species from specimens collected at Lake Corpus Christi in south Texas, and nothing more was recorded about the species until Nelson et al. (1996) reported a single specimen cut from its pupal cell in the base of Dalea formosa (Fabaceae) at White River Lake in far northern Texas — a range extension of almost 500 miles!  Obviously, I didn’t have this species in my collection, and it was only after a series of eliminations that led me to the original description (and confirmation of my ID by Nearctic Acmaeodera-guru Rick Westcott based on the photos shown here) did I know for sure what it was.  These specimens were collected at Seminole Canyon State Historic Park, thus, extending into west Texas the species’ known range, and they exhibit variability in the elytral markings and punctation that was not noted in the original description.  While only an incremental increase in our knowledge of this species, collectively such increases lead to greater understanding of the genus as a whole, and Jeff’s generosity in allowing me to retain examples of the species increases my U.S. representation of the genus to 130 species/subspecies (87%).

Acmaeodera n. sp. (Santa Cruz Co., Arizona)

The opportunity for discovery is not limited to range extensions and new host records, but includes new species as well.  A few years ago I received a small lot of specimens collected in Arizona by my hymenopterist-friend Mike Arduser (hymenopterists, especially those interested in apoid bees, are excellent “sources” of Acmaeodera, which they encounter frequently on blossoms while collecting bees).  Among the material he gave to me was the single specimen shown here that immediately brought to my mind Acmaeodera rubrovittata, recently described from Mexico (Nelson 1994) and for which I had collected part of the type series.  Comparison of the specimen with my paratypes, however, showed that it was not that species, and after much combing through the literature I decided that the specimen best fit Acmaeodera robigo (despite being collected in Arizona rather than Texas and not matching the original description exactly).  This was before I had true A. robigo with which to compare, so I sent the specimen to Rick Westcott for his opinion.  His reply was “good news, bad news” — the specimen did not represent A. robigo, but it didn’t represent any known species either!  While the prospect of adding a new species to the U.S. fauna is exciting, basing a description on this single specimen would be ill-advised.  Only through study of series of individuals can conclusions be made regarding the extent of the species’ intraspecific variability and its relation to known species.  Until such specimens are forthcoming, the specimen will have to sit in my cabinet bearing the label “Acmaeodera n. sp.”  For all of you collector-types who live in or plan to visit southeastern Arizona, consider this a general call for potential paratypes!  The specimen was collected in early August on flowers of Aloysia sp. near the Atascosa Lookout Trailhead on Ruby Road in Santa Cruz Co.


Fall, H. C.  1899.  Synonpsis of the species of Acmaeodera of America, north of Mexico.  Journal of the New York Entomological Society 7(1):1–37.
[scroll to “Journal of the New York Entomological Society”, “v. 7 1899”, “Seq 12”]

Knull, J. N. 1954. Five new North American species of Buprestidae (Coleoptera). Ohio Journal of Science 54:27–30.

Nelson, G. H. 1994. Six new species of Acmaeodera Eschscholtz from Mexico (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 48:272–282.

Nelson, G. H., R. L. Westcott and T. C. MacRae. 1996. Miscellaneous notes on Buprestidae and Schizopodidae occurring in the United States and Canada, including descriptions of previously unknown sexes of six Agrilus Curtis (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 50(2):183–191.

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 2010

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27 thoughts on “Aaack!-maeodera

      • Bonus points for post title, which made me LOL.

        The thought of finding something “new” (undescribed anyways) is…well, it’s awesome. I’m allowing myself a small, teeny, glimmer of hope that I’ll stumble on something in the next few field seasons…I’ll have access to specimens from about 12 regions that haven’t been properly sampled in, oh, 50 years or so. There has to be SOMEthing there.

        • I’ve found new species of both longhorned beetles and jewel beetles right here in Missouri. If new species still exist among two of the most studied families of beetles in eastern North America, just imagine what awaits in less studied taxa and/or more remote areas. You’ll get your chance.

  1. Although I have yet to find a species new to science myself, I have had specimens where I’ve thought “NEW SPECIES NEW SPECIES NEW SPECIES!!!!” Even though I’ve always proved myself wrong in these cases, I know sort of how you feel.

    • I’ve found a number of new species, but ironically I haven’t yet experienced the thrill of a “Eureka!” moment when I knew at the moment of discovery it was something new. Instead, in each case it was a gradual realization after a lot of digging to eliminate all other possibilities.

      Now, there have been moments when I’ve found something really rare based on a combination of planning and playing a hunch – finding Cylindera celeripes in Missouri last summer was probably the best of those moments.

  2. well, Geek by nature I’m not….but I still enjoyed reading this entry, at least the parts I understood…hehehe.
    Seriously I liked catching a glimpse of a “day in the life of BITB”. Just from my own personal experiences at home with my own collections I know the amount of work that goes into getting accurate ID’s. I have two full cases of specimens that have yet to be ID’d. Most are hymenoptera or coleoptera. One of these days I will have the time to delve deeper into researching them and be able to give them a name, until then they remain “as yet to be identified”.

    • Thanks, Shelly. “A day in the life” was part of what this post was about, so I’m glad you “got it” and enjoyed it.

      It used to bother me having specimens in the collection without species names assigned to them. In time one realizes that is an impossible dream.

  3. Great post! It’s these types of scenarios that keep me coming back to the lab everyday, because you never know what you might find!

    Our department’s entomology field course is actually going to southern Arizona for the first 2 weeks of May, so I’ll make sure that I pass word along and check any specimens that come back in case they look like a match!

    • Thanks, Morgan. Most Acmaeodera in southeast Arizona emerge as adults in connection with the summer monsoons, so I doubt there will be much activity in May. Still, that wouldn’t stop me from looking if I was there!

      I just wonder if there are already some of these specimens sitting unrecognized in existing collections. Maybe this post will prompt collection managers to take a look at what they’ve got.

  4. So what exactly is (are) the difference(s) between these specimens that leads Rick to conclude they aren’t from the same species?

    • Hi SPG. The two differ in several characters. The punctation on A. robigo is finer and more regular, while it is coarser and more irregular on the new species. The vestiture is also different, with the elytra of A. robigo bearing regular rows of short, flattened setae and that of the new species being more irregular and not flattened. Thirdly, A. robigo has a more cylindrical body and shinier dorsal surface, while the new species is subflattened, not as shiny, and has more strongly elevated 3rd elytral interval. There may be other characters as well, but these are the ones that strike my eye in looking at them.

      This is a good illustration of why it is so difficult to distinguish many species of Acmaeodera by photographs – if you get these two under the scope, the differences are much more apparent. They resemble each other superficially, but their gestalt is completely different.

      I presume you’re a botanist befuddled by the inner workings of insect taxonomy? 🙂

  5. Great article!

    I have been fortunate enough to find a number of species new to science and its always a thrill when you realize that you have something no one else has recognized as unique or even seen before. That’s what keeps me going.

    And if you can’t find something new then finding something that is rarely collected is almost as much fun. This year’s goal will be to find Omus xanti. As far as I can tell it is known from a single male specimen. LeConte’s description leaves much to be desired being little more than a single sentence, but finding the type locality and comparing specimens against nearby forms should answer many questions regarding its status. So on with the hunt!

    • Thank you, Dennis. I found my first new species in just my third year out of grad school (Purpuricenus paraxillaris), but it would take several more years before I could finally accept that I truly was the first to recognize this large, showy cerambycid beetle from eastern North America as new.

      I heard about you and Brzoska gearing up to find Omus xanti – good luck! And if find any extras… ol’ buddy, ol’ pal… 😉

  6. Hi, Ted – I enjoyed this post as well, though I don’t know what the title means. I’m a newbie naturalist, so I’m learning something new every day. I can only imagine how exciting it must be to discover and describe a species new to science. I wish you continued fun with all, and luck with new species.

  7. Hi Ted,

    Great post. I’ve long been hoping to find a new species. Tho’ I began with an expectation of a more dramatic find:

    Fishing something out the bottom of my net and in the same instant as it revealed itself to me, my heart would skip a beat or two as I realize its a new species and yell incomprehensible phrases!!

    Over the last few years, I’ve become more realistic… expecting something a bit more like that you describe in this post, where there’s some time from the actual find to the realization that its something really REALLY special. Still, the feeling must be fantastic(!) and I envy you, in the best of ways 🙂

    Aaack! I must look harder still!

    • Hi Nicholas,

      It’s a good feeling, regardless of whether you realize it instantly or only gradually over a period of time.

      I must confess that the first one or two are the most exciting – when you have yet to experience the thrill, and the possibility that it will ever happen seems so remote. After that, you gain an appreciation for really how little we know and how much there is still to find. Of course, it depends on where you look – I suspect the opportunities in Denmark are fewer than along the Mexican border.

  8. This was interesting, Ted. As a couple others have said, it’s neat to hear about “days in the life”. I’m not in Arizona all that often myself, of course, but I passed the post on to Eric Eaton who does live in the state (not sure how close to the original collection site, though). It might be something he could watch for this summer, or pass on to other folks down that way. Hope you’re able to sort it out! Nothing less satisfying than an unidentified specimen in the drawer (or photo in the folder).

    • I’ve gotten the word out to a number of western entomologists – apparently several of them have tried looking for this thing at the “type locality” in early August for the past several years but have not even found the Aloysia blossoms the specimen was collected on. I’m wondering if fire has changed things there – although I doubt there is anything special about that exact spot versus other nearby locations. We’ll just have to keep looking!

      It won’t stay unidentified forever – if a decade or two go by with no new specimens turning up, then I’ll probably go ahead and describe it. Still not as desireable as having a series of specimens, but better than permanently keeping it from science.

  9. Pingback: North America’s largest jewel beetle « Beetles In The Bush

  10. Thanks for pointing this one out to me. I’ve had an annual trip down to SE Arizona for the last few years, always during the first week of August. I’ll grab whatever buprestidae I can!


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