Monday Moth – Polka-dot Wasp Moth

Syntomeida epilais - polka-dot wasp moth

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Monday Moth post, so I thought I’d feature one of the prettier specimens in my very limited Lepidoptera collection.  This is Syntomeida epilais (polka-dot wasp moth), one of four species in the genus that occurs in the United States.  This particular specimen was collected by me way back in the mid-1980s (I was not quite yet the discriminating beetle collector that I am now) in Everglades National Park (yes, I had a permit).  The bright, contrasting coloration obviously screams aposematism (warning coloration), and in fact the tissues of the adult moths of this species are chock-full of several cardiac glycosides sequestered by the larva from its now preferred food plant, oleander (Nerium oleander).  Add to it their somewhat wasp-like appearance, and there should be no question to any would-be predator that these moths are a bad idea.  Wasp moths are related at the tribal level to another group of wasp-like moths called maidens which are restricted to the Old World.  I featured one of these from South Africa last year in the post, Monday Moth – Simple Maiden (Amata simplex).

If the cardiac gycosides stored in the tissues of this moth aren’t enough to cause gastric distress, trying to digest the higher taxonomic history of this group surely will.  Back in my school days, this moth belonged to the family “Ctenuchidae.”  As best I understand it, this group was later subsumed into the tiger moth family “Arctiidae” – itself later subsumed within the borg of all moth families, the Noctuidae.  In the most recent classification I’ve found, the arctiine moths have been pulled back out of the Noctuidae and combined with the former “Lymantriidae” (propelled to infamy by the gypsy moth) to form the family Erebidae (Lafontaine and Schmidt 2010).  Are you ready to purge yet? It’s still not clear to me whether this latest incarnation represents a consensus monophyletic unit, but it really doesn’t matter – whenever I see wasp moths, maidens, and especially the ctenucha moths that are so common in my area on goldenrod flowers during the fall, “ctenuchid” will still be the first name that comes to my mind.


Lafontaine, J. D. and B. C. Schmidt.  2010.  Annotated check list of the Noctuoidea (Insecta, Lepidoptera) of North America north of Mexico.  ZooKeys 40:1–239.  doi: 10.3897/zookeys.40.414

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #14 – Fusquinha

Despite their hyperdiversity, leaf beetles (family Chrysomelidae) as a group are for the most part among the most easily recognized of all beetle families, and within the family none are more recognizable than the tortoise beetles (subfamily Cassidinae).  Named for their distinctively armoured elytra and prothorax and associated behavior of drawing the head and legs under them when threatened, they are worldwide in distribution and especially diverse in the New World tropics.  Even though I know little about the group (chrysomelids as a whole are far too intimidatingly diverse a group for me to add to my already burgeoning list of interests), I can’t resist collecting them whenever I encounter them.  Having traveled to Mexico and South America many times over the years, I’ve accumulated almost a full Schmidt box of these beauties – most of which remained unidentified, save for the well-known representatives from our relatively depauperate North American fauna.

Thus, when I encountered this striking example on a leaf in the Barão Geraldo District near Campinas, Brazil, I figured the photos I took would go into one of those “Brazil Bugs” posts featuring a variety of pleasing to look at but otherwise unidentified insects.  Still, after having had success identifying some other Brazilian insects using Google, Flickr, and carefully selected search terms, I figured I should at least give this one a try.  It didn’t take long – searching on nothing more than “Cassidinae” in Flickr yielded a very similar looking beetle on page 6 from Panama identified by Rob Westerduijn as Paraselenis tersa.  While not likely the same species, it seemed almost certain to represent the same genus, so further searching on the genus name eventually led me to the cassidine mother lode: Cassidinae of the World: An Interactive Manual.  This web page, authored by Lech Borowiec, features species lists, identification keys and images of a large number of specimens, including nearly all of the 29 species currently placed in this exclusively Neotropical genus (you can bet I’m bookmarking this site – perhaps my Schmidt box of specimens will finally get some attention!).  A quick perusal through the images yielded an ID: Paraselenis (Spaethiechoma) flava, recorded broadly across South America.  Everything fit – the black scutellar marking, the elytra broader than the prothorax, the bicolored antennae, the thin black anterior elytral marginal band, and – appropriate for the species name – the even yellow coloration.  My ID was confirmed when I found a key to all the species of Paraselenis (Borowiec 2003).  I surmise this is a female based on the more rounded humeral elytral projections, which seem to be more strongly and angularly produced in the males based on the photos I looked at.

Interestingly, this particular species is considered a pest of sweet potato and commonly referred to as “fusquinha”¹ (Montes and Raga 2010).  Many species of tortoise beetles, in fact, utilize as host plants members of the sweet potato family (Convolvulaceae).  This individual was not on a convolvulaceous plant, but a small tree.  I looked for additional individuals but didn’t find any, nor did I find larvae or any evidence of feeding, so this must have been a wayward individual – probably searching for a suitable host on which to oviposit.

¹ “Fusquinha” is the Brazilian Portuguese word for “Volkswagon Beetle”!


Borowiec, L.  2003.  Two new species of the genus Paraselenis Spaeth, 1913 (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae: Cassidinae).  Genus 14 (3): 403-411.

Montes, S. M. N. M. and A. Raga. 2010. “Fusquinha” Paraselenis flava (L. 1758) praga da batata-doce. Instituto Biológico – APTA, Documento Técnico 004, 8 pp..

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Frenatae 2011 Calendar

Ralph Holzenthal - Tabanidae. Adobe Illustrator, gradient mesh/Adobe Photoshop.

Even though we’re now in the latter part of February, I wanted to spread the word about a cool insect-themed calendar shown to me by a colleague during my recent trip to Brazil. Produced by Frenatae, the Graduate Student Entomology Club at the University of Minnesota, the calendar features original work by students using computer illustration techniques taught in a UMN course titled, ENT 5051, Scientific Illustration of Insects. The mastermind behind this course is Dr. Ralph W. Holzenthal, who – as can be seen by the stunning image above of a female (L) and male (R) Tabanus lineola – knows a thing or two about insect illustration! While the course covers traditional techniques such as pen & ink, pencil, watercolor, etc., its major emphasis is on computer-assisted techniques using Adobe Illustrator® and Photoshop®. This includes instruction on preparing full habitus color illustrations of insects on the computer. How I wish a course such as this had been available when I was in graduate school (of course, how I wish computers had been available when I was in graduate school!).

While Dr. Holzenthal’s illustrative skills are obvious, it’s also clear that he excels at teaching these skills to his students, as evidenced by this selection of my favorite images (not surprisingly, all beetles!) from the course website galleries:

Caitlin Krueger - Scarabaeidae

Martha Megarry - Scarabaeidae

Heather Cummins - Zopheridae

It should be pointed out that all of these Photoshop illustrations represent original artwork and not modified photographs!

I ordered my copy of the calendar as soon as I returned home from my trip. You can order one too by sending a check for $12 to the following address:

1980 Folwell Ave Rm 219
St Paul, MN 55108

My thanks to Dr. Holzenthal for allowing me to post this small selection of images from his website.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Is Missouri’s disjunct population of Johnson’s tiger beetle extirpated?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe December 2010 issue of the journal CICINDELA came out a little over a week ago. Leading off inside is the first in a series of papers that I, along with colleagues Chris Brown and Kent Fothergill, have prepared detailing our work with several species of tiger beetles in Missouri of potential conservation interest. At the start of our surveys, Missouri’s tiger beetle fauna was already fairly well characterized, at least qualitatively, due to the efforts of heavy hitters Ron Huber and Dave Brzoska, who for many years lived in nearby eastern Kansas. Despite their attentions, however, questions lingered regarding the precise distribution and status of several species of restricted geographical occurrence within the state, and our surveys over the past 10 years have sought to resolve these questions and, if necessary, recommend conservation efforts to secure the long-term survival of these species within the state.

One of these species of interest is Habroscelimorpha circumpicta johnsonii (Johnson’s tiger beetle). This subspecies is widely distributed in inland areas of the central and south-central United States, where it is associated exclusively with barren areas surrounding saline seeps. Despite the broad occurrence of the main population, the Missouri population of this subspecies has long been of particular interest for several reasons: 1) its widely disjunct isolation, occurring several hundred miles east of the nearest populations in central Kansas, 2) its strict association with the highly restricted saline seeps of central Missouri (Fig. 1), and 3) the exclusive blue-green coloration of the adults (Fig. 2) that contrasts with the varying proportions of reddish and/or dark morphs, in addition to blue-green morphs, found in other populations. The highly disjunct and isolated occurrence of this population and its unique coloration have been considered by some workers as grounds for separate subspecific status. Another restricted, disjunct population of this species in North Dakota has already been accorded subspecific status – H. circumpicta pembina.

Despite its restricted occurrence in Missouri, a long history of collection records exist for the subspecies. Numerous specimens are housed in the Enns Entomology Museum in Columbia, Missouri, with a majority of these coming from a single location (Boone’s Lick Historic Site) and dating back as early as 1954. In more recent years (1985-1992), Ron Huber and Dave Brzoska found significant numbers of beetles at two additional locations near Boone’s Lick. Despite these numerous records, the subspecies was listed as a “Species of Conservation Concern” by the Missouri Natural Heritage Program with a status of “S2S3” (vulnerable or imperiled) due to the rarity of its required saline seep habitats in Missouri. Unfortunately, this alone did not appear to be sufficient protection for the species, as my own observations beginning in the mid-1990s suggested that populations of the beetle had declined significantly from their historical levels. Concomitant with these apparent declines was the observation that the sites supporting these beetles had themselves suffered severe degradation that reduced their apparent suitability as habitat for the beetle. As a result of these observations, Chris and I initiated comprehensive surveys during the 2001 field season to assess the conservation status of the Missouri population and identify potential new sites. Our first order of business was to petition a status change to “S1” (critically imperiled), and for the next three years we regularly visited the historical sites throughout the presumed adult activity period, noting occurrence of adults and recording their numbers and the circumstances of their habitat associations. Included in these surveys also were two new sites identified using the Missouri Natural Heritage Database.

The results were not good – during the 3-year survey, only a single beetle was observed at the historical location of Boone’s Lick, and none were observed at the two other locations discovered by Ron Huber and Dave Brzoska. More significantly, all three sites had suffered severe degradation due to vegetational encroachment, cattle trampling, or other anthropogenic disturbance. Moreover, of the two potential new sites identified, only one of these (Blue Lick Conservation Area) was found to support a small population of the beetle. Three apparently suitable saline seeps exist at this latter site; however, beetles were observed at only one of them. During the final year of the survey, prolonged flooding occurred at this site (frustratingly, a result of earth-moving operations by site personnel), which was followed in subsequent years by significant vegetational encroachment (Fig. 3). No beetles were observed at this site during the final year of the survey, nor has the species been seen there in multiple visits to the site in the years since.

Is the Missouri disjunct population of Johnson’s tiger beetle extirpated? There is little reason to be optimistic. What is clear is that the beetle is now below detectable limits, and with the loss of suitable habitat at all sites known to have supported the beetle in the past and little chance that new, high-quality sites will be identified, prospects for an unaided comeback are dim. The saline seep habitats at the three historic sites appear to have suffered irreparable degradation and offer little restoration potential to the degree required to support viable beetle populations; however, there are still two saline seeps at Blue Lick that do offer at least a semblance of suitable habitat. It is imperative that these last remaining examples of Missouri’s critically imperiled saline seeps habitats receive the highest priority for protection if the beetle (should it still exist) is to have any chance of surviving in Missouri. Johnson’s tiger beetle is only one of several tiger beetle species whose presence in Missouri appears to be in jeopardy (others being Dromochorus pruinina – loamy ground tiger beetle, and Cylindera celeripes – swift tiger beetle). I end this post with our closing admonition in the paper:

The loss of this beautiful and distinctive beetle from Missouri’s native fauna would represent a significant and tragic loss to this state’s natural heritage. We urge the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and other conservation organizations within the state to identify and allocate the resources needed to develop and implement a recovery plan for the species in Missouri.


Brown, C. R. and T. C. MacRae. 2011. Assessment of the conservation status of Habroscelimorpha circumpicta johnsonii (Fitch) in Missouri CICINDELA 42(4) (2010):77-90.

Postscript. On a happier note, I am pleased to be joining the editorial staff for CICINDELA. While my role as layout editor is more functional than academic, I am nevertheless thrilled with the chance to “rub shoulders” with the likes of Managing Editor Ron Huber and long-time cicindelid experts Robert Graves and Richard Freitag. I hope my contributions to the journal’s production on the computer end of things will be favorably received by its readership.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Friday Flower – Orquídea bambu

I arrived at our facility in Campinas, Brazil just before lunchtime.  I had spent the previous 20 hours on planes, trains, and automobiles (well, not trains), so when my colleague suggested that we take a short walk outside to the campus cafeteria I readily agreed.  Fresh air and at last a taste of that sumptuous Brazilian fare that I love so much sounded like a great idea.  As we walked to the cafeteria, I spotted these orchid blossoms on the tips of tall, reed-like stems growing in beds around the campus grounds… Orchids!  Growing in the ground, outside!  What a beautiful and appropriately tropical welcome to start things off.  I love orchids (and used to maintain a small collection back when I had time for such leisurely pursuits), so I asked my colleague if he knew which it was.  He didn’t, so I studied it carefully trying to remember its features so I could identify it later.  The terrestrial part struck me as a little odd for a Neotropical orchid, and I commented to my colleague that I’d bet it was something introduced from Asia.  That is precisely the case, although it took me a while to figure it out.  My initial Google and Flickr searches using terms such as “Brazil orchid” and the like produced pages and pages of Brazil’s famous diversity of native epiphytic species, but no obvious matches to this terrestrial species.  It later dawned on me that I should conduct my searches in Portuguese, and within the first page or two I found it – the appropriately named bamboo orchid (“orquidea bambusa”), Arundina graminifolia.

I would later see this orchid blooming not only in tended gardens, but from cracks in the pavement between buildings.  Originating from south and southeast Asia, this sole member of the genus is popularly cultivated in gardens across the tropics and has become naturalized in many areas.  Mary Farmer at A Neotropical Savanna has an excellent post on recognition and occurrence of this species in Panama, including detailed discussion and photographs of vegetational and floral morphology and its potential (or lack thereof) for becoming an invasive weed.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #13 – Gorgulho do fungo

Phaenithon semigriseus (Anthribidae) - Parque Municipal, Distrito Barão Geraldo, São Paulo, Brazil. ID by Jose Ricardo M. Mermudes.

Over the weekend during my trip to Brazil last month, I took a walk in the municipal park near my colleague’s home in Barão Geraldo. There was a rather large lake with a walking trail going around it, and although much of the vegetation was planted, there were some less kempt and more native-looking sections along the trail where I hoped to find some insects to photograph. As it turned out, there weren’t a whole lot of interesting insects, but I did see a capybara (“capivara” in Portuguese) – the largest rodent species in the world (picture a guinea pig the size of a small real pig) – for a brief moment before it splashed in alarm into the lake and swam away. One of the few interesting insects I did see was this little fungus weevil (family Anthribidae) on the bark of a large, recently felled tree. At only ~3-4mm in length, it was a rather tiny species as anthribids go – especially in the tropics – and lacked the comically elongated face that some species possess. Still, there is something humorous in its portrait.

Fungus weevils differ from true weevils (family Curculionidae) by having the antennae unelbowed.  I have no clue about the identity of this individual below family level, and there don’t seem to be a whole lot of entomologists that study this group of weevils (should anybody have a clue, please do leave a comment).  I simply must post these photos, however, because I think it is the first time I actually nailed the focus right on the eye with a closeup of this magnitude (~3X).  I actually took some closer shots also (in the 4X range), but I really didn’t care for the composition with the lens zoomed in to that degree.

Update 02/17/11, 9:53 a.m.: I just received an email from Jose Ricardo M. Mermudes (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro), who informs me that the species is Phaenithon semigriseus (Germar, 1824). It would seem that this photo at Coleoptera Neotropical has, until now, been the only image of this species on the web.

My thanks to Dr. Mermudes! 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Featured Guest Photo – Dromica kolbei

Dromica kolbei? - Kruger National Park, South Africa. Copyright © Joe Warfel 2011.

Shortly after I returned from Brazil, this stunning photo was sent to me by Joe Warfel, who himself had just returned from a trip to South Africa.  Joe had seen the beetle at Punda Maria camp in the northern part of Kruger National Park, had deduced that it represented a species in the genus Dromica, and included the following notes about its behavior:

It did not fly, only ran, ran, ran, ran…. you get the picture.  But stopped briefly now and then to deposit eggs in the  soil.  My best guess from my limited tiger beetle references is Dromica sp.  Any help for identification you may give would be appreciated.

Although I have not collected this genus myself, I recognized it instantly as a member of such based on specimens and images I have seen.  Carabidae of the World contains fine images of a number of species in this genus, of which Dromica kolbei (W. Horn, 1897) seems to be a pretty good match.  However, more than 170 species are currently included in the genus, and while a modern revision is in progress (Schüle and Werner 2001; Schüle 2004, 2007), the bulk of the genus still remains to be treated.  As a result, this really should be considered as just a provisional ID.

Dromica is a strictly sub-Saharan African genus of tiger beetles whose included species are denizens of dry lands – savannahs, grasslands, open woodlands, and semideserts, and are generally absent in the moister, more heavily forested areas of western Africa.  Like a number of other tiger beetle genera, they have given up the power of flight to capitalize on their fast running capabilities.  This flightlessness and the strict association of adults with often short rainy seasons has led to both spatial and temporal isolation of numerous, localized populations of restricted geographical range.  This has no doubt contributed to the diversification of the genus across the mosaic of suitable habitats covering central, eastern, and southern Africa.  Schüle and Werner (2001) suggest that a good number of new species may still await discovery in the more remote or yet inaccessible areas of the countries of occurrence.  I had hoped to encounter these beetles (and also Manticora, or the giant African tiger beetles) during my visit to South Africa in 1999, but luck was not with me in this regard (although I did collect several fine specimens of the handsome Ophryodera rufomarginata (Boheman) and also a few species in the genera Cicindina and Lophyra).

My sincere thanks to Joe Warfel for allowing me to post his excellent photograph.  I featured photographs by Joe in an earlier post (A Tiger Beetle Aggregation), and his other photos can be seen at EighthEyePhotography (you must see this striking harvestman from Trinidad!).


Schüle, P. 2004. Revision of the genus Dromica. Part II.  The “elegantula-group” (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae). Folia Heyrovskana 12(1):1–60.

Schüle, P. 2007. Revision of the genus Dromica. Part IV.  Species closely related to Dromica albivittis (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae). African Invertebrates 48(2):233–244.

Schüle, P. and K. Werner. 2001. Revision of the genus Dromica Dejean, 1826. Part I: the stutzeri-group (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae). Entomologia Africana 6(2):21–45.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011 (text)

Answers to ID Challenge #5 – Artrópodes em casca de árvore morta

Dead tree in Campinas, Brazil

After checking into my hotel in Campinas, Brazil I couldn’t wait to start exploring the grounds to see what insect life I might be able to find.  Almost immediately, I encountered this dead tree in back of the hotel.  To a beetle collector, a dead tree is an irresistible draw – especially one that is still standing and with loosely hanging bark, as in this one.  I approached the tree, gave it a look up and down the trunk to see if any beetles or other insects might be found on the outer surface of the bark, and when none were seen began carefully peeling sections of the bark away from the trunk.  Out from beneath the first section darted a small, black lizard – it reminded me in general form of our North American fence lizards (genus Sceloporus), but honestly it darted so fast up the trunk that I didn’t get a good look at it (much less even the chance to attempt a photograph).  Peeling the bark further away from the wood revealed a goodly number of what I took to be beetle larvae, although they were unlike anything I’d ever seen before.  They were fairly good-sized – about 25mm in length, and although there are a number of beetle families whose larvae may be encountered under the bark of dead trees, there aren’t many with larvae of this size.

Coleopteran larva (Tenebrionidae?) under bark of dead tree.

Despite their odd appearance, their basic gestalt suggested to me that they might be something in the family Tenebrionidae (darkling beetles).  Sadly, the state of beetle larval taxonomy is far from complete, especially in the tropics, and given the extraordinary diversity of the order as a whole I knew it could be difficult to impossible to identify them.  This task was further complicated by the fact that I did not collect any voucher specimens.¹

¹ Insect collecting permits are required in Brazil and are exceedingly difficult to obtain.  Although enforcement is lax, a few unlucky foreigners have been caught and suffered tremendous inconvenience at the hands of notoriously unsympathetic authorities.  This being a business trip, I had no desire to tempt fate for the sake of a few larvae in a group I don’t even study.

Despite a millipede-like appearance, six legs and loose cluster of ocelli indicate its true identity.

After consulting all of the print and online resources at my disposal and failing to find a convincing match at even the family level, I began to second guess not only whether these were tenebrionids, but larvae or even beetles.  I’m not aware of any tenebrionids with larviform adult females, but such are common in the Lampyroidea.  That didn’t seem to fit, however, as the latter tend to be much more flattened and armored in appearance, and the round head is really unlike the elongate and narrow head so often seen in that group.  The actually began to wonder if it was even a beetle – most xylophagous beetle larvae are light-colored and rarely so heavily sclerotized, and the antennae are unlike the typical 3-segmented antennae seen with most xylophagous beetle larvae.  In fact, the antennae and the shape of the head actually reminded me of a millipede, but the obvious presence of six legs (and no more) made this untenable (even though 1st instar millipedes are hexapod, the large size of these individuals precludes them from being 1st instar anything).  Eventually, I could only conclude that they were coleopteran – possibly a larviform adult, but more likely larval.  As a last resort I sent photos to Antonio Santos-Silva, a coleopterist at the University of São Paulo.  Although he specializes in Cerambycidae, I reasoned this might be a fairly common species since I had found good numbers on a single tree in an urban area near São Paulo, and as such it might be something he would recognize.  Antonio quickly replied saying that he agreed it was the larva of a species of Tenebrionidae, with an appearance similar to the larvae of Goniodera ampliata (a member of the Lagriinae, formerly considered a separate family).  I’ve not been able to find photos of the larva of Goniadera or related genera, but these do bear a striking (if more glabrous) resemblance to these presumed tenebrionid larvae from Australia.  Until a more convincing opinion is forthcoming, Tenebrionidae seems to be the consensus.

Polyxenid millipedes and two types of Collembola (several Poduromorpha and one Entomobryomorpha)

Three tiny adult coleopterans (family?) surround a large larval coleopteran

Although nobody zeroed in on Tenebrionidae for this challenge (#5 in the ID Challenge series), I must say that I enjoyed the diversity of opinion about what it might represent.  Moreover, congratulations to those who ‘took nothing for granted’ and noted the presence of several other organisms in the photo – this is where the big points were to be earned, and several participants successfully ID’d what I take to be a number of poduromorph collembolans, a single entomobryomorph collembolan, a central cluster of polyxenid millipedes, and several indistinct but clearly coleopteran adults (see super crops above).  David Hubble got the most correct answers to earn 15 points and the win in this inaugural post of BitB Challenge Season #2, while Dave and Troy Bartlett earned 13 and 10 points, respectively, to complete the podium.  Seven other participants got in on the fun and earned some points – I hope you’ll join the fun next time, too!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011