Sweet Sixteen!

The 7th Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ is officially over – Chris and I rolled back into town a little after midnight last night. It was an amazing trip – perfect weather, unparalleled scenery, and a record-breaking 16 species of tiger beetles seen in 13 localities across four states. Not only does this beat my previous trip record of 13 species, but we did it with only five days in the field. At the time of my previous update, we had visited several locations in the South Dakota Badlands and Nebraska Pine Ridge and found ten different tiger beetle species, including Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) – our top priority for the trip – C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle), and C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle). Our plan for the next day was to visit the Badlands of Wyoming to look for C. decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle – appropriately) and the Yampa River Valley of northwestern Colorado to look for C. scutellaris yampae and C. formosa gibsoni, all three of which we managed to find (though with caveats – stay tuned). Our originally planned final field day was to take us back into Wyoming to look for C. longilabris (boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the mountains east of Laramie and the Nebraska Sand Hills to look for the delicate little C. limbata before heading back home. However, we were finally paid a visit by “the skunk” and did not see any of these species (although our sighting of C. limbata (common claybank tiger beetle) in Wyoming did officially break the old trip record). Not wanting to end the trip on a disappointing day, we delayed our departure for home yesterday and visited two more sites at the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills (sites M and N in the above map) – a clay bank site where we saw a robust population of C. denverensis (to augment the single individual we had seen earlier in the trip) and several C. splendida (splendid tiger beetle), and another sand dune/blowout system where we at last succeeded in finding C. limbata.

The day after the end of the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ is usually a somewhat depressing day for me. Not only is the trip over, but likely so is the entire insect collecting season. I know I need the down time to process the specimens and knowledge acquired during the season, but the field work itself remains my favorite aspect of this pursuit. Nevertheless, the experiences from this trip will fuel my memories for years to come, and in the next weeks I’ll share some of the stories that unfolded. Until then, I leave you with this portrait of C. pulchra – looking rather annoyed with me for my persistent efforts to take his photograph.

Cicindela pulchra - the ''beautiful'' tiger beetle

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Promiscuous Plants

Naturalists have long been aware of the greater tendency for plants than for animals to create viable interspecies hybrids. This is attributable not only (as some might expect) to a higher likelihood of passive plants whose mating is mediated by pollen-hungry insects, or the wind, to hybridize more often, but rather to a greater ability of plants, with the simpler design of their anatomies, successfully to build a functioning organism with a Gemisch of genes from parents of different species. Such hybrids occur naturally, and are often reported in regional floras. Further, the advent of modern techniques for characterizing DNA has revealed that hybridizations of yore have given rise to numerous species, and higher lineages, in plants, in fungi, and to a lesser extent in animals.

My recent wanderings in quest of fall flora photos at Shaw Nature Reserve really brought this phenomenon of admixture of species to mind as I was examining populations of the three Gentiana species that live at the reserve. All three are fairly recent introductions at SNR, added to the flora in several locations in our prairie and wetland habitat reconstruction program. Hybridization among these gentian populations was first brought home in my observation over the last three years of increasing numbers of purplish and bluish and outright blue individuals in a population that was originally pure white gentian – Gentiana alba. This population was sowed in the mid-1990s as part of a mesic prairie reconstruction in the watershed of our wetland complex.

Gentiana alba, G. andrewsii and their lavender tinted hybrid growing side by side at Shaw Nature Reserve.

Pale or white bottle gentian, in "pure" form.

A few years later, 50 or so meters distant, separated by a dense row of trees and shrubs, and in a much wetter habitat in which water pools after every rain and seeps subsurficially much of the year, blue bottle gentian – G. andrewsii — was sowed into a wet prairie / sedge meadow reconstruction.

The rich blue flowers of the blue bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii

At first the two populations grew independently and remained separate, but what I surmise was a combination of water borne seed transport (along the shore of a pond whose edge both populations are near), and bumblebee borne pollen transport, conspired to bring gametes of the two species together, creating what population geneticists call a hybrid swarm, and what taxonomists call a — well, I can’t write it in polite company such as my readers.

Observe in the sequence of images above how a bumblebee gyne (a potential queen of one of next year’s annual bumblebee colonies) pries open a bottle gentian flower and dives in for a long drink of nectar at the base of the large vessel. Apparently the nectar is copious, because bumblebees may remain in a single gentian flower for up to a minute.

The result of pollen transport among pale and blue bottle gentians, a hybrid of intermediate characteristics.

While there are other populations of both species on the reserve (one hopes, out of bumblebee range from each other) that may retain their genetic integrity, the rampantness of the admixture at this site does give me pause.

And it gets worse! — On drier ground up the slope, among a dense planting dominated by prairie dropseed and little bluestem grasses,  a third gentian known as downy or prairie gentian – Gentiana puberulenta – was established from a seed mix sowed 10 years ago to convert the watershed of the reserve’s wetlands to prairie vegetation.

Unlike the two previously mentioned species and their hybrids, the downy gentian's petals open wide at anthesis, admitting entry to small bees and even to spindly-legged potential pollinators such as syrphid flies.

And now those perverse bumblebees have gone and defied the laws of speciesness and created what appear to be hybrids of this third gentian species with the other two. Honestly, I don’t know whether to feel that I have done some sort of wrong by creating the situation that allowed this to happen … or simply to be intrigued by this unforeseen outcome of my work, and to wonder what will come of it after I’m gone?

The gentian in the upper photo appears to be the offspring of a cross between white and downy gentian parents, while the one in the lower photo appears to be the result of a cross between blue bottle and downy gentian.

2 days, 6 localities, 10 species…

Here’s an updated itinerary for the 7th Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip that fellow cicindelophile Chris Brown and I are in the midst of. We’ve spent the past two days visiting six localities in Nebraska and South Dakota. So far, we’ve found a total of 10 species – including every species we had hoped to see at this point in the trip. The list so far (in chronological order) is:

  • Cicindela (s. str.) tranquebarica kirbyi – ho hum, we’ll see this in several places.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) purpurea audubonii – über common Great Plains species, although the black form is always a treat to see.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) pulchra – YEAH! Seen in good numbers at one of the new South Dakota localities discovered in 2008 by Matt Brust (our personal chaperone for the day). Marvelous field photographs.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) fulgida – Only one seen, but Chris got a nice series of field photographs (I’ve seen good numbers of this species from my previous trips to this area in 2008 and in Oklahoma last year).
  • Cicindela (s. str.) nebraskana – Another “A list” species for the trip, but we’ve only seen one so far.
  • Cicindela (Cicindelidia) punctulata punctulata – also known as Cicindela ubiquita.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) scutellaris scutellaris – even though this is a common Great Plains species in any sandy area, I never tire of its dazzling red elytra and blue/green head and pronotum.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) lengi – The third species on our “A list” that we’ve seen, with some real nice field photographs from Monroe Canyon.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) formosa generosa – another common Great Plains species.
  • Cicindela (s. str.) denverensis – I didn’t expect to see this one on the trip (just a single individual at Monroe Canyon), but I’ll take it!

Tomorrow we’ll hit a Wyoming location where Cicindela (s. str.) decemnotata is known to hang out – a species I’ve not yet seen, either alive or preserved. Most sources regard this species as closely related to C. denverensis, but Matt thinks it is actually more closely related to C. fulgida due to similarity in form and shine but green instead of purple. Afterwards, in a major addition to our planned itinerary (hence the updated Google Map), we’ll go into northwestern Colorado to look for two very cool subspecies of the otherwise widespread species – C. formosa gibsoni and C. scutellaris yampae. If we’re lucky we’ll also see the delicate little sand lover, Cicindela (s. str.) limbata, but if we don’t see it there then we should see it the next day when we finish out the trip back in the Nebraska Sand Hills just east of Alliance. But before that, we’ll veer back up into Wyoming and look around in the high elevations east of Laramie in hopes of finding Cicindela (s. str.) longilabris laurentii. That one may be a stretch, but if we are successful then we have the potential to see a total of 15 species – that would be a trip high for me (literally and figuratively).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

First tiger of the trip…

Tiger salamander, that is! Chris and I spent Thursday evening and all of Friday driving across Missouri, up along the Loess Hills into Iowa, across the Missouri River into Nebraska, and all the way through mile after surreal mile of the vast Sand Hills before dropping down the Pine Bluff escarpment into Chadron, Nebraska. We expected the fun would start the next morning, when we would meet up with Matt Brust and travel to ‘secret’ spots in the Badlands for our first tiger beetle target, the gloriously beautiful Cicindela pulchra. As we unloaded our bags from the truck and headed towards the motel entrance, we spotted this gorgeous tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) ambling across the parking lot. Wow – I had never seen a tiger salamander before now, but still there was no question in my mind what we had just found. Immediately we knew we wanted to get photographs, and the motel parking lot seemed the most inhospitable of places for this poor fellow, so I hurriedly made a makeshift terrarium using one of the containers I had brought along for keeping adult tiger beetles and placed him in it. He was dry, so as soon as we got in the room I wetted him down and added a petri dish of water to the habitat.

Actually, I knew I wanted more than photographs, as I had the impression that these largest of all North American salamanders are also among the easiest to keep as pets. I knew that my daughters would enjoy such an experience (not to mention myself!). First, however, I wanted to make sure that 1) tiger salamanders were not listed as a species of conservation concern in Nebraska, 2) my taking or possessing this individual was legal, and 3) I knew exactly what I would be getting into if I were to keep it. Google to the rescue! I found the Nebraska Game & Parks website, which states:

A fishing permit is required to take, or attempt to take, fish, bullfrogs, snapping turtles, tiger salamanders or mussels by any method.

A link at the site directed me to a page where I could purchase a 1-Day Nonresident Fishing Permits ($9.50 – proceeds go to support Nebraska Game and Fisheries programs) – enter my credit card number, download the PDF, and now I’m legal.

A little more Googling revealed this excellent series of videos with information on caring for tiger salamanders as pets , and I was sold. I’ll wait until I get home next week and let the kids decide what to name it, and I’m hopeful it will live a long, sluggish life getting fat on fall armyworms, corn earworms, and tomato hornworms.

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/11), Canon MT-24EX flash (F.E.C. -2/3) w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Reunion in the Badlands… and beyond

Two years ago I targeted Nebraska and South Dakota for that year’s Fall Tiger Beetle Trip. I had gotten my first experience with what Nebraska had to offer with a long weekend trip to the Nebraska Sand Hills during the previous fall, and with my appetite fully whetted as a result of that trip, I made a full-blown week-long trip through not only the Sand Hills, but further west to the Pine Ridge area in northwestern Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was a phenomenal trip that featured not only tiger beetles (13 species in all), but rare longhorned beetles, aggressive rattlesnakes, and a stunning array of autumn-flavored Great Plains landscapes.

Ted MacRae and Matt Brust stand in Cicindela nebraskana habitat (northwestern Nebraska).

Probably the species that I was happiest to encounter on that trip were Cicindela nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle), C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle), and C. limbata (sandy tiger beetle).  I can’t claim sole credit for those finds, since I had made arrangements to meet Nebraska tiger beetle expert Matt Brust and have him show me some of his favorite sites. With Matt’s help, both in taking me to localities and directing me to others, I found nearly every species that I was hoping to see. Nearly, but not every species that is. The one species I really hoped to see but knew was a long shot was Cicindela decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle). It’s right at the easternmost limit of its distribution in northwestern Nebraska, and only a handful of individuals have been seen in the state. Another species I did not see was Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle). You’ve heard me talk about this species on several occasions, referring to my experience with it in south-central Kansas (written up in this little note) and my later obsession – so far unfulfilled – with finding it in nearby northwestern Oklahoma. I didn’t even try to look for this species… because nobody knew it was there! It was not until the following year that Matt found it in the Badlands of South Dakota, and since then he has located a number of populations in that area.

It is with C. decemnotata and C. pulchra in mind that I make return trip to the South Dakota Badlands for the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™. This time I am accompanied by fellow cicindelophile and field companion Chris Brown, and by the time you read this we will be on our way to meet up with Matt once again and focus our efforts on finding these two species. In this far northern area, it is already late in the season, so success is not assured. However, with Matt showing or directing us to some of the localities where he’s found these species, we’ve got the biggest bullets in our guns possible. Since I’ve already seen many of the other interesting tiger beetle species up that way (C. nebraskana, C. lengi, C. limbata, etc.) from the previous trip, we will be free to devote all of our attention to finding these two species – including driving even further west into the heart of Wyoming, where C. decemnotata occurs a little more reliably. If I come back from this trip with nothing more than some great photos of one of these species, the trip will have been a success. If I come back with photos of both of them, the trip will have been a huge success. Along the way, I’ll still keep an eye out for other tiger beetles – especially C. nebraskana, C. lengi, and C. limbata, because about the only thing I would wish for on top of success as photographing C. decemnotata and C. pulchra is nicer photographs of these other species as well to replace the dreadful point-and-shoot versions that I have from my 2008 trip.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The last survivor

This past June I made two trips to the Loess Hills of extreme northwestern Missouri as part of a follow-up survey for Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle).¹ I was hoping to identify additional populations, however small, of this tiny, flightless, enigmatic species to go along with the three that colleague Chris Brown and I discovered last year.  The results were good news, bad news – no new populations were found, but I was able to re-confirm the beetle’s occurrence at two of the sites where we found the beetle last year.

¹ Some of you may recall my excitement at finally finding this long-sought after species in Missouri – apparently limited to the state’s few remaining high quality loess hilltop prairie remnants.

One of the sites that I had hoped might harbor the beetle is Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Holt Co. – located very near McCormack Loess Mounds Natural Area where the beetle was seen both this year and last.  Squaw Creek features several thousand acres of restored wetland habitat in the Missouri River valley that serve as resting, feeding, and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife.  Located within the Mississippi Flyway, the refuge is best known for its large concentrations of snow geese and bald eagles.  Wetlands are not good habitat for C. celeripes, but it was not the wetlands I was interested in visiting (well, I am really interested in visiting the wetlands someday – but on these visits I had other goals).  Rather, it was the tiny slivers of loess hilltop prairie that still remain on the fingers of loess bluffs along the eastern boundary of the refuge.  Twice scouring these prairie remnants over a two-week period failed to reveal the presence of the beetle, but on the first visit I did see this lone, rather ragged-looking adult male Cicindela limbalis (common claybank tiger beetle).  Unlike the aforementioned species, C. limbalis is rather common throughout most parts of the state on upland clay exposures. A spring-fall species, adults first emerge in September, have a little fun (which includes feeding but not mating), and then dig back into the ground for the winter before emerging once again in the spring. It is one of the first insects to greet the new season (I’ve seen them as early as late March) – mating and oviposition occur over the next month or two, and by end of May these guys are pretty well spent.  An interesting feature of the populations found in extreme northern Missouri is their higher degree of elytral maculation.  Compare this relatively fully-marked individual with this female that I reared from a larva collected at Knob Noster State Park in west-central Missouri (incidentally, my first ever reared tiger beetle!).

This male is clearly among the last of his generation in this area – not only did I not see any other individuals on the entire trip, but he clearly exhibits signs of wear and tear.  I found him nibbling on this dead millipede (which larger tiger beetles are known to prey upon); however, I don’t think this guy actually killed the millipede.  Rather, I think he found it already dead and was scavenging one of the only meals still available to him.  Closer examination of the face reveals that his left mandible is broken off near the base (best seen in the enlarged photo) – whether a result of battle with over-sized prey or a narrow escape from predation himself is hard to say.  Regardless, with only one “tooth” his ability to capture prey on his own has been severely compromised, and about all he can do is look for already dead prey items on which he can scavenge.  As one of the last survivors of his class, one can only hope that he lived a long and fruitful life, killed much prey, and inseminated many females.

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14-16), Canon MT-24EX flash (1/4 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

An Inordinate Fondness #8 – Meet the Beetles

An Inordinate Fondness #8 is now up at Arthropoda, and I must say it is one of the most impressive issues to date. Mike Bok has given us yet another delightful version drawing on the obvious parallels between the “beetles” (taxon) and the “Beatles” (musical group). This has been done before, but whereas Amber made delightful soundtracks for each submission in AIF #2, Mike has come up with some of the most impressively amusing “Beetle” album covers one can imagine. “Abbey Road” (above) may be my favorite, but “The (Tiger) Beatles” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ” also must be seen to be believed.

Oh, and by the way, the issue contains links and introductions to a full plate of 20 coleopterous compositions to satisfy your cravings for all things elytral – including five contributions just on tiger beetles alone (hmm, now how did that happen?). Please visit, read, click, and comment – it’s one of the best issues ever.

The problem with an issue this good is that it makes for a hard act to follow, and the October edition of AIF still needs a host.  Hosting is fun and easy, and you’ll get plenty of help if you need it.  Please visit the AIF website if you’re interested in hosting an upcoming issue (your choice of months).  If you can’t commit to hosting but would still like to contribute, use this handy automatic submission form, or contact me directly.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

…the “better” Eleodes suturalis

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really wasn’t satisfied with the photographs I took of the clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis, that I brought back from Oklahoma. I had placed the beetle in a terrarium of native soil and taken the obligatory whole beetle and head close-up photographs, both showing all the characters needed to identify the species in adequate detail. They were good, scientific photos, but they weren’t very exciting. In fact – they were boring! Now, I know not every subject I photograph is going to be a wower (the giant desert centipede I recently featured probably setting that standard), but it is important to me that the photographs I post here at least be interesting. After taking those first E. suturalis photographs, then being underwhelmed as I brought them up one-by-one on the computer, I started thinking about whether certain insects are just ‘homely’, and no matter how you photograph them they will still be homely. Eleodes suturalis is by no means a homely beetle in real life, but that is due mostly to the impressiveness of its size – a quality not easy to project in photographs.  Beyond that, its somber coloration, lack of unusual morphological modifications, and “beady little eyes” (fide Adrian) don’t offer much else in the way of help.  Combine that with the unflattering salmon coloration of its native soil as a substrate and an exoskeleton just shiny enough to cause annoying specular highlights, and you’ve got a recipe for really boring beetle photographs!

That’s when it occurred to me to try photographing the beetle in a white box.  I’ve only just begun to experiment with this technique and have been impressed with its ability to make somber-colored subjects (e.g., Gromphadorina portentosa) attractive and truly beautiful subjects (e.g. Buprestis rufipes) simply stunning.  The sharp, clean environment of a white box demands a clean beetle, so I gave the beetle (who had done much digging since the previous photo shoot) a good soaking and scrubbing (to the beetle’s great disapproval!).  Yes, I know there is still some dirt on him, but I think a dental pick and wire brush would have been needed to remove every last bit, caked on as it was!  Despite that, I think I achieved the desired effect – specular highlights… gone!  Boring background… gone!  Clean and crisp and ready to impress! The photos also do a much better job of highlighting the 3-dimensionality of the beetle than the original photographs.  Of the many photos I took, my favorite is featured above, and below I present two more that closely approximate the vantage of the two photos I posted from the first shoot in a side-by-side comparison.

For those of you wondering how I managed to secure the beetle’s cooperation for these photos, I used a modification of the “lens cap” technique, covering the beetle with a large glass bowl instead.  The beetle crawled around under the bowl for a bit but eventually would end up settled down against the edge.  By carefully lifting the bowl I was able to avoid disturbing the beetle and fire a few shots before it would start wandering again.  I just repeated the process until I was satisfied I had a few good shots in the sequence.

Does this mean an end to my preference for in situ photographs?  Certainly not.  But some beetles just look better in white!

Photo Details:
White box: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18-20), Canon MT-24EX flash, indirect. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).
Terrarium: same except f/18, direct flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010