Litaneutria minor – agile ground mantid

Litaneutria minor - agile ground mantid

Have you ever seen a mantid that lives exclusively on the ground?  Most mantids are ambush predators, hiding amongst the bushes while patiently waiting for unsuspecting prey to happen within striking range.  However, a few small groups of mantids have adopted a different strategy – running down their prey!  One such group is the ground mantids, represented in the U.S. by two genera – Litaneutria and Yersiniops.  These small mantids, cryptically colored brown or gray, occur in desert and grassland habitats across the western U.S.  This particular individual was seen in the expansive shortgrass prairie atop the Pine Ridge in northwestern Nebraska.  The rounded eyes and brown coloration identify it as as a member of the genus Litaneutria (the tops of the eyes are pointed in Yersiniops, giving them a “horned” appearance, and they tend to be more gray).  Two species of Litaneutria are found in the U.S. – this one, L. minor, occurring broadly throughout the Great Plains and western U.S. into southwestern Canada (it is Canada’s only native mantid), while a second species, L. obscura, is restricted to the desert southwest.¹  Several common names have been applied to L. minor, including lesser ground mantid, minor ground mantid, and agile ground mantid.  While the first two represent more precise literal translations of the scientific name, I like the latter which well describes the ability of these mantids to hop over rocks and dart swiftly through sparse prairie vegetation in pursuit of prey or to evade predators (and inexperienced collectors!).  Despite its small size (total length less than 1.5″), the presence of wings – albeit small – indicate this is an adult. All females of this species are brachypterous (short-winged), but most males are as well.  However, males apparently have a small spot at the base of the forewings, which seems lacking in this individual, and a smoother pronotum – also not readily apparent in this individual, so I’m guessing that this is an adult female. 

¹ BugGuide and many other web sources list five additional U.S. species in the genus (including L. borealis, described from northwestern Nebraska).  However, Vickery and Kevan (1983) note that these were all synonymized under L. minor by Hebard in 1935 (sorry – I couldn’t find that reference).

“Mantid” vs. “mantis” vs. “praying mantis.”  It has become common to use the terms “mantid” and “mantis” (or even “praying mantis”) interchangeably.  However, in its strictest sense the term “mantis” is most properly applied to species of the genus Mantis – of which Mantis religiosa – the European mantid or praying mantis, introduced to the U.S. in the late 19th century (either accidentally on a shipment of nursery plants or deliberately for pest control – depending on the source) is the most widely recognized.  The term “mantid” refers to any species in the suborder Mantodea as a whole.

Carnivorous cockroaches!  When I was in college back in the late 1970s, mantids and most other “orthopteroid” insects had long been considered suborders of a single order, the Orthoptera.  Around that time began a great dismantling of the Orthoptera, pared down to only the grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids while the other former suborders (mantids, walkingsticks, cockroaches, etc.) were raised to full order status.  The walkingsticks (Phasmida), grylloblattids (Grylloblattodea), and gladiators (Mantophasmatodea) all continue to enjoy their elevated status (Tree of Life Web Project 2003); however, a close relationship has been established between the mantids, cockroaches, and termites² (Kristensen 1991), resulting in the sinking of all three former orders into a single order, the Dictyoptera (Tree of Life Web Project 2002) (and not to be confused with the lycid beetle genus Dictyoptera).  Mantids, thus, can be considered derived cockroaches with morphological specializations for predation!

² Long accorded an order of their own – the Isoptera, recent molecular phylogenetic studies have placed termites not only with the cockroaches, but within them (Ware et al. 2008).  Just as mantids can be considered cockroaches that evolved as predators, termites can be considered cockroaches that evolved to eat wood (with the help of cellulose-digesting gut symbionts)!

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).


Kristensen, N. P. 1991. Phylogeny of extant hexapods. Pp. 125–140 in Insects of Australia: A Textbook for Students and Research Workers. Volume I and II. Second Edition. I. D. Naumann, P. B. Carne, J. F. Lawrence, E. S. Nielsen, J. P. Spradberry, R. W. Taylor, M. J. Whitten and M. J. Littlejohn eds. Carlton, Victoria, Melbourne University Press.

Tree of Life Web Project. 2002. Dictyoptera. Version 01 January 2002 (temporary). in The Tree of Life Web Project,

Tree of Life Web Project. 2003. Neoptera. Version 01 January 2003 (under construction). in The Tree of Life Web Project,

Vickery, V. R. and D. K. M. Kevan. 1983. A monograph of the orthopteroid insects of Canada and adjacent regions. Lyman Entomological Museum and Research Laboratory Memoir 13:216–237.

Ware, J. L., J. Litman, K.-D. Klass, and L. A. Spearman. 2008. Relationships among the major lineages of Dictyoptera: the effect of outgroup selection on dictyopteran tree topology. Systematic Entomology 33(3):429–450.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

3rd Blogoversary, 7 New Blogs, & AIF #10

Today happens to be BitB’s 3rd blogoversary.  I won’t bore you with an attempt at witty, insightful introspection on what it means to have reached this modest milestone.  BitB is still what it started out as – tales from my life-long, entomocentric, natural history learning experience.  I’ve enjoyed these past three years immensely, learned far more than I would have initially imagined, and deeply appreciate the support and encouragement I’ve received from an admireably erudite readership.

Rather than talk on about myself, however, I’d like to talk about others.  I’m always on the lookout for new blogs – those that seem interesting make the blogroll, and if I find their content compelling enough they make my RSS feed list.  A few rise to the top due to their superior photography, insightful writing, or close alignment with my own interests – these I like to feature from time to time by name in an occasional post such as this one.  Following is the latest crop of new sites (or at least new to me) that have piqued my interest:

Crooked Beak Workshop is written by coleopterist Delbert la Rue, Research Associate at the Entomology Research Museum, University of California, Riverside.  I can forgive his primary interest in Pleocomidae (rain beetles) and other scarabaeoid taxa due to his strong side interests in Cicindelidae (tiger beetles), Buprestidae (jewel beetles), and ecology of sand dune ecosystems.  Posts occur irregularly, but when they do appear they are good old-fashioned hardcore coleopteran taxonomy and desert southwest ecology – what could be better?

Field Notes is a herpetology website by Bryan D. Hughes.  “Spectacular” does not even begin to describe his photographs, focused heavily on the marvelous diversity of venomous snakes and other reptiles in the desert southwest (and the occasional desert arachnid as well).  Bryan hopes his pictures and information will help homeowners who choose to live in areas harboring native wildlife become interested in it rather than kill it due to fear and myth – I hope he succeeds!

Gardening with Binoculars is a fairly new site by my good friend and fellow WGNSS member Anne McCormack.  Anne is a true “naturalist’s naturalist,” with solid knowledge that spans the breadth of Missouri’s flora and fauna – both vertebrate and invertebrate.  In GWB, Anne uses this knowledge and her considerable writing talents to weave informative and entertaining tales of her experiences with wildlife in a small native plant garden.  I can almost hear the campfire crackling in the background!

Natural History Museum Beetle blog is a new blog by Beulah Garner, one of the curators of Coleoptera in the Entomology department at The Natural History Museum in London (I am sooo jealous!).  With only two posts under her belt so far, it might be premature to give the site such quick praise; however, I couldn’t resist – the 2nd post had photos of tiger beetles!  Regardless, working amongst more than 9 million insects (did I mention I’m jealous?) should provide plenty of fodder for future posts.

The Atavism is written by David Winter, a PhD student in evolutionary genetics in New Zealand.  Wide ranging in his interests, it is his  series that has captured my interest (and while “spineless” across much of the blogosphere means squishy marine animals, David’s spinelessness is more to my liking – i.e., arthropod-heavy).  Moreover, in true academic fashion, David usually finds an unusual angle from which to discuss his subjects.

The Prairie Ecologist. Chris Helzer is an ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska whose writings demonstrate deep, intimate understanding of the prairie landscape and its myriad biotic interactions, as well as the passion that many of us here in the heartland feel when looking out on its vast expanses.  As if that wasn’t enough, Chris is also one of the rare bloggers who combines his well-crafted writing with truly spectacular photography – he’s the total package!

The Sam Wells Bug Page is written by – you guessed it – Sam Wells.  This is a straight up entomology site, featuring a diversity of insects from that wonderful state called California.  You won’t find these insects anywhere else on the web, and though it is (to my liking) heavy on the beetles, a variety of other insect groups are featured as well.  What’s more, each post almost always contains fabulous photos of that remarkable California landscape.  Each post is a little mini-collecting trip – I get a little homesick for the Sierra Nevada every time I read!

One final note – Heath Blackmon at Coleopterists Corner has posted the tenth edition of An Inordinate Fondness.  This was Heath’s first blog carnival hosting gig (could there have been any more appropriate?), but you wouldn’t know it by looking – 14 coleocontributions artfully presented, each with a teaser photo and just enough text to invite further clicking.  Head on over to AIF #10 and enjoy elytral ecstasy at its finest (and don’t forget to tip the waiter!).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Answer to Super Crop Challenge #1

Seemingly correct answers came quickly to yesterday’s inaugural Super Crop Challenge, which featured a curious structure atop a harvestman (class Arachnida, order Opiliones) that I encountered while hiking the lower North Fork Section of the Ozark Trail in extreme southern Missouri. “Seemingly” I say, because even though some points were earned, others remained left on the table – the organism was rightly recognized as a harvestman, and the structure in the photo does indeed contain the ocelli (or eyes).  However, nobody actually named the structure itself (see update below) – the ocularium (ocular or optical tubercle would also have been accepted).  Hey, I’m pedantic and proud!

As near as I can tell, this individual belongs to the genus Leiobunum (family Sclerosomatidae).  Species in this genus are notoriously difficult to identify; however, the super long legs, dark dorsal stripe, pointed abdomen, and very long palps with “knees” that extend dorsally to a level well above the ocularium suggest a male L. vittatum or one of its close relatives (Schulz 2010). Leiobunum vittatum is a common inhabitant of wooded habitats across the eastern U.S.

I took this shot with an MP-E 65mm macro lens at about 2.5X. The short working distance of the lens at this level of magnification makes it difficult to photograph these longer-legged species in lateral profile due to their habit of “waving” their especially elongate 2nd pair of legs in the air as pseudo-antennae – one touch of any part of the camera sends them scampering. I chased this guy back and forth across a downed tree trunk for some time before I finally got lucky when it encountered some prey (note the long structure extending down from the mouth area – I believe it is the antenna of a tiny, nymphal blattodean) and became distracted just long enough for me to close in and fire off a couple of close shots. He was actually closer to the underside of the log, so when I took this photo I was leaning far over the log with the camera almost upside-down!

Okay – Art earns points for being the first to identify it as a harvestman, while Geek snaps rare duplicate ID points for using the order’s scientific name (no complaining – scientific names will always get points on this blog).  Art, Aniruddha, and Geek also get half-points for mentioning (in order of correctness) eye, ocelli (technically more correct, but wrong plurality), and ocellus (yes, only one is visible – did I mention my pedantic tendencies?).  However, I’m going to declare arachnologist and Opiliones specialist Chris as the winner of this round for his impressive display of generic-level identification based on the meagerest of evidence!

Update 11/22, 11:00 a.m. – actually, Chris did name this structure in an email sent to my office address while the comments box was unchecked and, thus, earns a clean sweep of this challenge.

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).


Schulz, J. W. 2010. The Harvestmen of Maryland (accessed 20 November 2010).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Super Crop Challenge #1

ID quizzes and challenges seem to have become an increasingly popular subject for natural history blogs. I’ve done a few of my own, but my straight up ID challenges are starting to seem a little unimaginative compared to the DNA sequence, crypsis, mimicry, taxonomy fail, and other challenges being offered up by bug blogdom’s more creative types. To step it up a notch, I offer the first Super Crop Challenge. Small structures that we take for granted within a larger context often take on alien qualities when viewed in isolation. Can you identify this structure and the organism that possesses it?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Desmocerus palliatus – elderberry borer

Desmocerus palliatus (elderberry borer), Squaw Creek Natl. Wildlife Refuge, Missouri.

Last June I made two trips to the Loess Hills in northwestern Missouri to survey additional sites for Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle), which my colleague Chris Brown and I had discovered in some of the area’s few remaining loess hilltop prairie remnants the previous year. One of these potential new sites was  Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, where a few tiny slivers of hilltop prairie can still be found on the fingers of loess bluffs that border the refuge’s several thousand acres of restored wetlands that famously host large concentrations of snow geese and bald eagles during the fall and spring migrations.  On the first visit, I had arranged to meet with Corey Kudrna, Refuge Operations Specialist, who was kind enough to take several hours out of his day to personally guide me to each of the site’s loess hilltop prairie remnants. 

As we crossed the highway right-of-way at the base of the bluffs on our way to the one of the remnants, we passed through a large patch of common elderberry, Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis.  Anytime I see patches of this plant, especially in June, I immediately think of Desmocerus palliatus (elderberry borer) – a spectacularly colored longhorned beetle (family Cerambycidae) that breeds exclusively in the living stems and roots of this plant.  It is not a particularly rare species, but for some reason I have not had much success in finding this species.  In my close to three decades of collecting beetles, I had encountered perhaps a half dozen individuals – never more than two at the same time.  Still, when I get the chance to look at elderberry I look for this beetle, and when I did so this time I was delighted to see one within a few moments of entering the patch.  I was ecstatic when I saw another one almost immediately after the first, and I was stunned when I realized that they were all around me!  Good fortune continued on my subsequent visit two weeks later, when I was able to spend a little more time trying to get a good field photograph.  Wind was a problem, the beetles were easily alarmed, and their tendency to rest in the upper reaches of the plant made it difficult to brace myself and the camera while shooting, making this a rather difficult subject to get a good photograph of.  The photo shown here is literally the last of around two dozen that I took and is the only one that I really like.

Many cerambycid beetles are mimics of other more noxious species, mostly ants and wasps.  However, elderberry borers appear to be the exception in that they are themselves noxious.  The cobalt blue and bright orange coloration of the adults screams aposematic (warning) coloration, and it is reasonable to assume that they accumulate in their bodies for defensive purposes the cyanogenic glucosides produced by elderberry plants (Huxel 2000).  Even their movements are those of a chemically protected model – lumbering and clumsy, without the alert evasiveness usually seen with other flower longhorn species.  Presumably this species participates in a Müllerian mimicry complex involving netwinged beetles (family Lycidae, particularly species in the genus Calopteron) and perhaps Pyromorpha dimidiata (orange-patched smoky moth, family Zygaenidae) as well, and it may serve as a Batesian model for the equally colorful but completely innocuous Lycomorpha pholus (black-and-yellow lichen moth, family Arctiidae).

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/10), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.


Huxel, G. R.  2000.  The effect of the Argentine ant on the threatened valley elderberry longhorn beetle.  Biological Invasions 2:81–85.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The “best” Eleodes suturalis

Eleodes suturalis - "sutured" clown beetle

Testing with my new diffuser setup¹ continues. I’ve kept this “sutured” clown beetle (Eleodes suturalis) alive since last July as a terrarium-mate with my Great Plains giant tiger beetles (Amblycheila cylindriformis). The first photos I took of it in the terrarium with the old diffusers (Sto-Fen + Puffers) can only be described as “ho-hum.” The next series (with the beetle cleaned up a bit) was taken in a white box with indirect flash and represented a nice improvement over the first shots. Here, the beetle is back in the terrarium on a piece of bark using direct flash and the new diffuser. I think it has the best of both worlds – nicely diffused lighting on a natural substrate (without the need for a white box). Yes, the focus is a bit off in the head area – the beetle was really not very cooperative during the shoot, and I was just interested in seeing how the lighting would look without spending too much time trying to capture the “perfect” shot.

¹ Photos of the diffuser and instructions on how to make it are coming, I promise! I’ve made a few improvements over the prototype by eliminating the tape to hold things together and am just working on the attachment to the MT-24EX flash bracket.

I really hope this diffuser works out for me in the field!

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16), direct Canon MT-24EX flash w/ oversized concave diffuser. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Cicindela pulchra on white

Two more photographs taken with my new diffuser, this time the spectacular Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle). Which one do you like better?

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ oversized concave diffuser. Standard post-processing (levels, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Amblycheila cylindriformis on white

It’s been four months now since I went to the Glass Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma on a hunch to look for Amblycheila cylindriformis (Great Plains giant tiger beetle).  The five adults that I brought back from that night are still alive in a terrarium of native soil, but to this point they have refused to lay eggs.  Despite feeding them regularly with fat Maduca larvae, there is obviously still something they need that I am not providing.  I’ve suspected that perhaps the terrarium that I have them in is too small, and I’ve also noted in the literature that larval burrows are often found clustered near the entrance of mammal burrows.  With this in mind, I combined the native soil from three separate terraria into one larger, deeper terrarium, packed the soil lightly, and used a spoon to create an artificial mammal burrow entrance.  Not long after placing the adults in their new home they began digging at the back of the burrow, eventually creating two separate tunnels leading in opposite directions (and fortunately against the container walls so that I can see inside the tunnels).  I was optimistic at first that finally I had given them what they wanted, but since digging the burrows they’ve just sat in them.  Perhaps they “know” that winter is coming and are just looking to hole up for now, so I suppose I’ll go ahead and place the terrarium in the 10°C incubator with the rest of my larval and adult rearing containers and wait until next spring to see what happens.

In the meantime, I thought I would share these recent photographs of one of them.  I had been wanting to take photographs of this species in a white box, which I have used with a few other species to generate some rather striking photographs (e.g., Gromphadorina portentosa, Buprestis rufipes, Scolopendron heros, Eleodes suturalis). The photographs in this post might look like they were taken in a white box, however, they were not.  I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to come up with a diffuser setup that is convenient for field photographs of wild insects in their native habitats.  Kurt’s do-it-yourself concave diffuser and Alex’s tracing paper diffuser work great with the Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash and the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens, but as I mentioned in a previous post they do not work so well with the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens and its longer working distance… or so I thought!  I’ve come up with a modified version of the concave diffuser that seems to be what I am looking for – it is easy to use, adds virtually no weight to the camera, is completely portable for field use, can be used with both the 65mm and 100mm macro lenses, and – best of all – costs virtually nothing.  The photographs in this post were taken with the first prototype, and now that the basic design and general dimensions seem to work I’ll try to make a more durable version. It’s simply a larger version of the concave diffuser – I found some very thick polypropylene foam that is sturdy enough to hold its shape but flexible enough to curl back and over the top of the flash heads, where the corners are held in place by Velcro. Essentially it forms a large “soft box” type diffuser in front of both flash heads. I cut the bottom inch off of a a 500-mL polypropylene beaker, then cut that in half and cut out all but a quarter inch of the bottom to form a sturdy but transluscent frame to hold the polypropylene foam against the flash head bracket on the front of the lens. Right now the foam is held in place by tape, but hot glue should do a better job, and the diffuser bracket is attached to the flash head bracket with Velcro. The whole rig comes off in a flash and lays mostly flat in the camera bag.

If this diffuser proves successful, it will eliminate the need for the different flash head extender brackets that I was considering.  I really didn’t want to go that route because even the cheapest models are rather costly, and all of them add bulk to the camera and create problems for those who need to switch lenses frequently (such as I do).  Of course, the real test is – does it achieve the desired result?  I’m quite happy with these initial photographs – the lighting is quite even due to the large “apparent” size of the light source, and the annoying double specular highlights that are the hallmark of the MT-24EX are much less apparent (though still slightly discernible).  The closest shots are at 1:1, while those of the entire beetle are between 1:1.5 and 1:2.  They are among the largest beetle species that I have photographed, so the range of magnifications used here pretty much covers the entire range that I typically use with this lens.  Wildflowers often require smaller mags and longer working distances, so it remains to be seen whether this diffuser/lens combination will be useful for them as well. 

All of the photographs in this post were taken with the 100mm macro lens (ISO100, 1/250 sec, F16) and direct MT-24EX macro twin flash using this new diffuser.  The beetle was placed on white filter paper and covered with a clear glass bowl until it settled against the side of it.  Once the beetle was quiet, I gently lifted the bowl and used micro-forceps to gently tug its legs into more appealing positions – surprisingly this did not cause it to become alarmed and try to flee (as long as I didn’t accidentally brush against one of its antennae!).  For the last photograph, I placed the beetle back in its terrarium and used the same techniques to get the beetle in a good position. 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010