Cicindela albissima—The Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah

The week had started off good, with three species of western sand dune endemic tiger beetles (Cicindela formosa gibsoni, C. scutellaris yampae, and C. arenicola) and a variety of sometimes spectacular Crossidius longhorned beeltes having been encountered.  Mid-week, however, had brought a lull in our success—the long drive to southwestern Idaho was not rewarded with finding C. waynei, endemic only to Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, and an even longer drive was required to backtrack and then drop down to the southwestern corner of Utah in hopes of finding the equally rare and restricted C. albissima.  Had it not been for our continued success with different species and subspecies of Crossidius longhorns the drive might have felt like a lesson in futility.  Still, on a collecting trip a new day and new locality brings new hope, and anticipation grew as we passed through lodgepole pine forests on stunning black lava fields and wind-carved red sandstones on the final approach to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

Colored pink by iron oxide minerals, the dunes are estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 years old.

Words cannot describe the stunningly spectacular landscape that unfolded before us as we entered the park.  The scenery alone makes Coral Pink Sand Dunes worthy, in my humble opinion, of National Park status, but it is C. albissima—occurring only on the park’s vivid pink dunes and nowhere else in the world—that makes this place truly special.  Precisely where in the park the beetle lives is a matter of public record, as Chris Wirth (author of the intermittent but highly focused blog Cicindela) and Randolph-Macon College Professor Emeritus Barry Knisley have produced a wonderfully detailed and well illustrated brochure about the beetle and its life history, population trends, and limiting factors.  What remained to be determined was whether the beetles would be active during the brief window of time available to look for it.  Cicindela albissima is a so-called “spring-fall” species in reference to the bimodal adult activity period, but activity in the fall is much less predictable than in the spring depending on moisture availability.  The day was perfect—temperatures in the 70s by mid-morning, only a light breeze, and a sharp, blue, cloudless sky.  All we could do was look.

Adult beetles were found on the northern edge of this dune. A majority were seen amongst sparse vegetation rather than barren areas.

It didn’t take long really to find them, as the adults were already out in encouragingly strong numbers. Of the several dozen adults we saw, all but one were seen atop the northern edge of one particular sparsely vegetated dune.  I suspect the larval burrows were at the bottom of the steep northern dune escarpment in the more stable wind-scoured sandstone clays that lay between individual dunes.  Vivid white and floating across the sand on long delicate legs, the elegance of their beauty was a stark contrast to the harshness of the surrounding landscape.  With a miniscule range of only 400 hectares, C. albissima is one of North America’s rarest tiger beetles, and I felt truly priviledged to join the small ranks of those who have seen this beetle alive in its native habitat and could appreciate the significance of the event.  Of course, the sense of accomplishment would not be complete unless I also succeeded in photographing the species in the field, and although the adults were quite wary and active, I was happy with several of the photos that I ended up with.  Similar to what I observed with C. arenicola, adults amongst the vegetation seemed slightly less skittish than those out in the open, so it was in the vegetated areas that I concentrated my efforts.  My only regret was not adding extension tubes to allow some real closeup portraiture, but the beetles seemed far too wary to have put up with the decrease in working distance that would have entailed.  At any rate, here are some of my favorites:

What the future holds for C. albissima remains unclear.  Designation of the beetle’s home range as a preserve (albeit tiny) would seem to offer long term protection, but a  large portion of this area is open to off-road vehicular traffic (although not a single one was seen during the time that we were there).  An even greater threat exists in the potential for extended drought affecting the entire population, and as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere the chance of impacts from unusual weather events only grows. I feel lucky to be among the few that have witnessed this beautiful species in nature, but I sincerely hope I am not among the last.

ORV tracks can be seen just outside the conservation area boundary

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

16 thoughts on “Cicindela albissima—The Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle

  1. I had never heard of this species, or the Coral Pink Dunes, but a sign for the park caught my eye on the way to Zion three years ago, and a sign in the parking lot let me know about the beetles, as well as an interesting looking federally threatened milkweed that grows there. I got to watch and photograph the larvae excavating their burrows, but it was summer so there were no adults around. Nice to see what they look like–great shots of them and their habitat!

    • Was my hunch correct – were the larva down in the swales between the dunes?

      If you ever get a chance to go there when the adults are active it is well worth it. A stunning experience all around with the beetles, the scenery, and other insects we saw.

  2. Ted, I am truely jealous. I live in Utah county (northern utah) and have never found the time to do much southern collecting. If I ever am down in the dunes, I will defenatly be looking out for this species, as well as the other dune dwelling creatures of course. The next tigers I look forward to seeing would have to be C. waynei from the Bruneau dunes in Idaho and C. arenicola from St. Anthony dunes in Idaho aswell. Maybe I should organize an Idaho Ground/Tiger beetle trip, Metrius explodens is another Idaho gem. Too many beetles, too little time…

    • I’ve wanted to see this species for several years and feel rather fortunate that I succeeded on my first attempt.

      Yes, C. arenicola is also a treat (as is C. theatina in Colorado – not that I’m spilling any beans here!). I’m worried about C. waynei – the area where they’ve been seen in recent years is vanishingly small, and I couldn’t even find evidence of larval burrows when I was there.

  3. Ted:
    All of the sand dune dwellers are exciting to see, but my favorite to watch are the C. formosa gibsoni as they crash and tumble when they land. They remind me more of a big clumsy scarab rather than a sleek tiger beetle.
    Great photos, incidently and I am glad to see you found most all the species you were looking for on your trip.

    • Thanks Charlie. It was quite a trip.

      That comical bounce and tumble becomes rather annoying when you’re trying to get photographs of them. 😉 But I agree – the generosa around here do the same thing.


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