Lampetis drummondi larva?

Back in February, I learned that Mark Volkovitsh (Zoological Institute, Russian Academy of Science, St. Petersburg) would be visiting Chuck Bellamy (California Department of Food and Agriculture) in Sacramento the very week that I was planning to be in Lake Tahoe. Chuck and Mark are two of the worlds leading specialists in Buprestidae, or jewel beetles, and have worked together on a number of projects dealing with the taxonomy and systematics of buprestid beetles. Mark, in particular, has focused on describing the larval forms of buprestids (“white wormy things,” as my wife calls them) and using larval morphology to supplement adult morphology in phylogenetic analyses. I’m not anywhere near being in their league in terms of authority in the family – a comparative dabbler, really – but for some reason they’ve both seen fit to accept me into the fraternity. I’ve been fortunate to spend time in the field with each of them, as well as visit them at their respective institutions.  When I learned of Mark’s coincident visit, I couldn’t resist the chance to make the 2-hour drive from Lake Tahoe to Sacramento and spend the day with Mark and Chuck at the CDFA and discuss things buprestological.  The wife and kids were fine with that, since her brother also lives in Sacramento, and it would be a chance for them to do some sight-seeing before we all got together for dinner.  Upon arriving at CDFA, I also met Andy Cline, a nitidulid specialist at the CDFA (re-met actually, turns out we’d met some years back), and the four of us went out for an animated lunch at a nearby restaurant over some of the most delicious barbeque that I’ve ever tasted.

L-R: Mark Volkovitsh (Russia), Chuck Bellamy (CDFA), me, Andy Cline (CDFA)

After lunch, I was most interested in discussing with Mark some buprestid larvae that I had collected in Big Bend, Texas in 2004. My colleague Chris Brown and I were hiking a low desert trail west of Rio Grande Village when we encountered a large, uprooted Goodding willow (Salix gooddingii) tree laying on the river bank. Wilting leaves were present on some of its branches, suggesting that the half-dead had been washed to its current location by the river during a recent flood. At the base of the trunk where the main roots projected, I noticed what appeared to be frass (the sawdust that wood boring beetle larvae eject after eating it – that’s right, grub poop!) under the edge of the bark at the live/dead wood interface. I used my knife to cut away some of the bark and immediately encountered a huge buprestid larvae. Its enormous size is matched only by a few desert southwest species: Polycesta deserticola, which breeds commonly in oak and is known from willow, but breeds only in dead, dry branches; and Gyascutus planicosta, whose larvae are restricted to the living roots of Atriplex and a few other asteraceous shrubs.  Clearly, it could not be either of these species.  The only other desert southwest buprestids large enough to produce a larva this large (~50 mm) are Lampetis drummondii and L. webbii. However, the larvae of both of these species are unknown, as is basic information regarding what hosts they utilize for larval development. Lampetis webbii is quite rare, but L. drummondii is, in fact, one of the most conspicuous and commonly encountered buprestid species in the desert southwest – that fact that its larva has remained unknown suggests that it utilizes living wood, probably feeding below the soil line.  Thus, I immediately began to suspect that the larva might represent this species – a truly exciting development. 

As I continued digging into the wood, I encountered a second, somewhat smaller larva in a neaby gallery, and further digging revealed another clue about its identity in the form of fragments of a dead adult beetle – all brilliant blue/green in color (identical to the color of L. drummondi), and the largest (the base of an elytron, or wing cover) showing the same pattern of punctation exhibited by L. drummondi adults. I placed the two larvae individually in vials with pieces of the host wood; however, I knew there was little chance that either larva, requiring living tissue upon which to feed, would complete its development once removed from its host gallery.  They did survive for a time after my return to St. Louis, but when the largest larva became lethargic, I decided to go ahead and preserve them.  I sent the photograph below (taken by Chris) of the living larvae to Mark, who confirmed that it did indeed appear to be a species of Lampetis, based on its large size and the narrowly V-shaped furcus on the pronotal shield (typical for members of the tribe to which Lampetis belongs). 

Buprestid larva (prob. Lampetis drummondi) under bark of Salix gooddingii at trunk base - Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo by Christopher R. Brown.

Considering the complete lack of published information on the larval biology of Lampetis drummondi and the several lines of evidence that these larvae, in fact, represent that species, it would be worthwhile to publish a description of the larva.  However, formal description requires dissection, and I did not know how to do this.  Mark, on the other hand, has dissected literally hundreds of buprestid larvae, including representatives of nearly every genus for which larvae are known.  He is the buprestid larva expert, and what a thrill it was for me to learn how to do this from the Master himself, using the larger of these two probable Lampetis larvae as the subject.  While we were dissecting the larva, we compared its features to those published for the European species Lampetis argentata (Danilevsky 1980) – the only member of the genus for which the larva is known – and confirmed their similarity and the larva’s likely close relationship to that species.  Coincidentally, the larva of L. argentata develops in living roots of saxaul (Haloxylon) – a genus of large shrubs/small trees (family Amaranthaceae) that grows in the deserts of Central Asia.  It thus appears that Lampetis species may, as a general rule, utilize living wood below the soil line for larval development, explaining why the larva of only one (now two) of the nearly 300 species in the genus worldwide has been found.


Danilevsky, M. L. 1980. Opisanie zlatki Lapmetis [sic] argentata (Coleoptera, Buprestidae) – vreditelya saksaula [Description of the larva of Lapmetis [sic] argentata (Coleoptera, Buprestidae) – the pest of HaloxylonZoologicheskii Zhurnal 59:791–793.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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21 thoughts on “Lampetis drummondi larva?

  1. Neat find! And how convenient that you were able to take it to someone whose work you respect to have it dissected and examined.

    Would there be any possibility of taking a tissue sample and having it barcode-ID’d?

    • I would have sent it to him sooner or later, but what a great opportunity to sit there with him and learn first hand how to do the dissections myself. Even more illuminating was scanning through his extensive image collection and looking at representatives of different tribes and genera while he highlighted the useful characters.

      DNA barcoding might be feasible in the future, but the dataset still has to be built. I’m not aware of anyone doing buprestid sequencing at the moment.

      • Being able to teach oneself is a great skill to have, but definitely nothing beats being shown by a pro. Glad you had the opportunity!

        Could the DNA be compared to samples taken from adults of the different species, then? Wouldn’t require that the barcode be sequenced yet. Sort of like paternity testing.

        • Now that’s an idea. However, I killed the larva by parboiling it before transferring to ethanol – I’m not sure if that destroys DNA or not.

          Then there’s that whole learning-how-to-isolate-and-sequence-DNA thing to deal with 🙂

          Actually, I’m satisfied the larva represents Lampetis, but there is the nagging possibility that it could represent the 2nd, rarer species – not likely but still a possibility. A properly killed specimen of the latter will be difficult to come by; however, matching sequence data between the larva and a L. drummondii adult would go a long way towards confirming its ID.

          • Drat – I did a little searching and found that parboiling larvae degrades their DNA pretty badly. Even without that, the 70% ethanol they are stored in will do so because of the presence of water. Apparently the best way to preserve DNA in larvae is to kill them in high concentrations of ethanol and change frequently until the water from the body is removed, then store frozen. Killing larvae in ethanol, of course, also results in darkening of the specimen, and high concentrations will result in a very stiff specimen, so this is not the best method for morphological studies. I guess one must always find two larvae – one for parboiling and one for straight ethanol!

            • That’s a shame. But I guess you know for next time, now.

              At least you’ve got enough data through dissection to feel confident enough about the genus. Know anyone who resides in the area where you found that one? Perhaps you could have them keep an eye out for potential others.

            • Well, like I said – it’s a commonly encountered species throughout the desert southwest, so there will be no shortage of collectors who could look for it. The problem is figuring out which trees are infested – it’ll take a special person to decide they’re gonna dig around the base of living willows to look for evidence of borers. Maybe it’ll happen – I know I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out next time I’m out there.

              If I hadn’t been in a National Park, I would have used my chain saw to cut a big section of the trunk with the larvae and brought it back for rearing. It would’ve been quite a chore to do that, since we were at least a mile from the truck (go get the chain saw, come back and cut the wood, then haul it all out). I’ve gone through lengths almost as great on occasion, but not in a National Park (btw, I did have a collecting permit, but chain sawing was not a specified collection technique :)).

            • This is a struggle I’m encountering in my field planning for the summer…I’m interested in morphological characteristics of my critters (and will probably be encountering a lot of singletons), while others want the DNA. Even the collection fluid in traps may pose a challenge.

            • From what I can tell, ethylene and polypropylene glycol (antifreeze) do not degrade DNA, so if you use that for a killing/preserving agent in your traps you should be fine. You can remove a femur and store it to 95% ethanol if you’re serious about saving a sample for molecular work (and can live with a pentapodic singleton :)).

  2. It’s a blast meeting up with fellow enthusiasts of our rare persuasions for particular insect groups. So much to learn and discuss.

    Anyway, very interesting story of discovery. Hope you get another one some day, and have that vial of 95% ready for that leg.

  3. It was great to hear the conclusion of that adventure. As usual, it was impressive to hear you put together the significance of the find as you were excitedly hacking at the wood.

    I could almost hear the canyon wrens singing in the background as I read the account.

  4. Ted,

    You said to go to west TX to collect this thing. What do you beat to find them, or in what circumstances to you most often run into them? I would like to try for them here and figured that your most promising search image in TX might be the best chance here.



    • If they’re around you can’t miss them – the adults are up to 50mm in length. You’ll find them on a variety of small trees – none of which apparently serve as the larval host, but in west Texas they’re especially fond of persimmon (Diospyros texana). They’re rather clumsy and not all that alert – you can basically just hand pick them off the trees. Again, this species is more common in Texas and New Mexico, but Nelson (1985) recorded Cochise Co., Arizona as the western limit of its distribution.

      Lampetis webbii, on the other hand, has been recorded more often in southern Arizona – Burke (1918) recorded larvae of what he said must be this species from the heartwood of dead Cercidium torreyanum, but I think this needs to be verified. It looks very similar to L. webbii, so if you find it I’d definitely be interested in seeing it.

  5. OK, I’ll keep an eye out. I have not seen it, so they’re probably either not around or at least not plentiful. We don’t have persimmon here as a native plant but I understand there are some ornamentals (I’ve not seen them).

    Cercidium torreyanum I understand to be a synonym of Parkinsonia florida or the Blue Palo Verde which we have in good numbers along the river. (How do you italicize the words in the reply?) So that would be something to keep an eye on.

    Thanks for the info. You’ll get to see anything I come up with!

  6. Pingback: An Inordinate Fondness #3: Discovery Zone « Fall To Climb

  7. Hi,
    I was browsing random links and when I stumbled across this larva’s picture and it all came back to me. I live in the Philippines and I’ll never forget seeing this freaky thing. Brown jaws, round head, narrow elongated body….
    When I was I kid, I would hear a ticking noise coming from the frame of our bathroom door, behind the strike plate where the doorknob’s bolt went. I knew it was some sort of insect. It went on for several days so I decided to unscrew and remove the strike plate, and was greeted by a tiny pair of jaws that would retreat into the crevice whenever I poked at it. The thing or it’s mother apparently bored a hole/chamber in the doorframe. This was back in the 80’s, it was an old house that had been standing since the 60’s, so the timber was pretty dry. I find it really weird that a beetle larva would decide to set up shop there.
    Ok, grub in the door, easy job. Take a pair of pliers and it out headfirst. Then I freak the hell out when the whole length of it’s body comes out. So I toss it in the toilet, stare at it for around 10 minutes till it stops struggling and drowns, then flush. I know my grubs, we have rotting wood in the yard where scarabs grubs would grow, but this was no scarab. It looked exactly like the one in your picture.

    • Hi James – the larva was probably in the wood already when it was used to construct the house. There are many documented cases of prolonged development with wood boring beetle larvae in timber used for construction (the record is more than 50 years!). Apparently the process of drying after harvest causes the larva to suspend development and remain quiescent, and then – at some point – resumption of development is triggered and the adult beetle emerges..


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