I recently posted a photograph of a clown beetle (Eleodes hispilabris) (family Tenebrionidae) that I found last July in the Glass Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma. I had encountered that individual while stumbling through the mixed-grass prairie in the middle of the night in search of the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis). Although I eventually found the latter species, it took a few hours, during which time I was forced to examine numerous individuals of another clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis – perhaps the most conspicuously common clown beetle in the Great Plains. I didn’t bother to take photographs of them, focused as I was on my tiger beetle search and owing to the fact that this was not the first time I’d encountered that species in abundance (the first time being many, many years ago as they crossed the highway en masse just a few miles north of the Glass Mountains in Barber Co. Kansas). In fact, I was becoming rather annoyed with them due to their great similarity in size and coloration to the object of my desire¹, and only when I found the previously photographed individual doing the defensive “head stand” so characteristic of the group did I relent and break out the camera for a series of shots (not easy in the dark of night).
¹ Wrigley (2008) even suggested a mimetic association for Amblycheila cylindriformis and Eleodes suturalis due to their similarity in size, shape and coloration (black with a reddish-brown sutural stripe).
Of course, that individual turned out not to be E. suturalis, but the closely related species E. hispilabris, a fact that I did not realize until several days later as I was examining the photographs more closely. Fortunately, I happened to bring home with me a live individual of what truly represents E. suturalis, which I show in these photographs. I’m not sure exactly why I brought a live one home with me – I’ve done more and more of this in recent years, mostly just to observe them and see what they do.² I think in this case, I was intrigued by the possible mimetic association between this species and A. cylindriformis and wanted an individual for comparison with the several live A. cylindriformis individuals that I also brought back with me.
² The singular focus on collecting “specimens” that I had during my younger years seems to be giving way to a desire to know more about species as living entities and not just their external morphology.
Unlike E. hispilabris (my identification of which I only consider tentative), there can be little doubt that the individual in these photographs represents E. suturalis. No other clown beetle in the Great Plains exhibits the sharply laterally carinate elytra and broadly explanate (spread outward flatly) pronotum (Bernett 2008). The reddish-brown sutural stripe of the distinctly flattened elytra is also commonly seen in this species, although occasional individuals of a few other clown beetle species exhibit the stripe as well (including E. hispilabris, which likely was the reason I assumed it represented E. suturalis). All of the characters mentioned above can be seen in the photographs shown here. However, I nevertheless find the photos rather unsatisfying. If you think you know why, feel free to comment, otherwise you can wait for the “better” photos…
Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).
Bernett, A. 2008. The genus Eleodes Eschscholtz (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae) of eastern Colorado. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 81(4):377–391.
Wrigley, R. A. 2008. Insect collecting in Mid-western USA, July 2007. The Entomological Society of Manitoba Newsletter 35(2):5–9.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010
3 thoughts on “The real Eleodes suturalis…”
My 2 cents worth – I find dark beetles are very hard to photograph satisfactorily. When you try to display the blacks as truly black, you seem to loose a sense of the form and sculpturing, and when you open up the shadows, you lose the black-ness that matches your recall. But for me, the most unsatisfying thing is how small black eyes seem ‘lost’ on the black background, no matter what you do. So many of the charismatic bugs that we appreciate (tiger beetles, jumping spiders) photographing have large, noticeable eyes.
As well, I imagine the photos were taken in an aquarium, which necessitates a higher angle to isolate the subject on a natural looking background (which unfortunately, is sort of salmon-colored, in this case). Outdoors this is less of a problem, and you can shoot at a lower angle.
Having said that, I think your photographs do a good job of documenting this beetle and the identifying characteristics you describe. 🙂 I learn something new every time!
Yes, dark beetles are hard to photograph, and even moderately shiny ones such as this present a challenge due to specular highlights. But – there are still ways to take striking photographs of such insects…
Interesting observation about tiny versus large eyes – I hadn’t thought of that (and can’t do much about it, either!). I will note also that they give a very small target for setting the focus, and even though I shot these at f/18, the big chunkiness of the beetle still prevented me from nailing the focus on the entire dorsal surface.
You are right about the high angle necessitated by shooting into an aquarium (the substrate in which I nearly always prefer to be the actual, native soil). High angle shots always seem to make the bug look like somebody stepped on it! I can definitely do something about that, as the next set of photos in this series will show… 🙂
Yes, these photos are good, scientific documentation of the beetle in a naturalistic setting. They’re just not very exciting!
Greetings Ted. I came across your two interesting stories about Eleodes suturalis resembling E. hispilabris, and I’d like to point out something else I found interesting. Having collected large numbers of E. suturalis in southwestern South Dakota (the Amblycheila cylindriformis site leading the Wild Horse Preserve), I noticed when preparing them that the lateral borders of the pronotum varied markedly in shape — some rounded, others upturned. I finally realised that the former were E. acuta, the latter E. suturalis. E. acuta also averaged larger, around 30 mm, while most E. suturalis were under 26 mm. So both almost identical species (including the rosy red sutural stripe) occur in the same habitat and area; their distributions are also very similar. I also caught E. acuta in the White Sands, New Mexico area. You may already have identified your Eleodes correctly, but it may be worthwhile to check your specimens again. I certainly enjoy your stories and photographs. Robert
P.S. Since I know you are a fan of Amblycheila and Cicindela, I’d like to mention that Todd Lawton gave me a beautiful drawing of the former species for my new book, “Chasing Nature: An Ecologist’s Lifetime of Adventures and Observations.” Among the 230 short stories are ones on Amblycheila cylindriformis and Cicindela denikei.