Eye to eye to eye to eye with a tiger beetle larva

After the past few years of hunting tiger beetles, I’ve learned not only how to find the larval burrows but—at least for most of the species occurring in Missouri—how to identify the larvae in the field. While conclusive identifications rely upon morphological characters, a preliminary field ID is often possible based on a combination of burrow size, placement, soil type and knowledge of which species are likely to occur in a given habitat. Tiger beetle larvae don’t have the same aesthetic appeal to many people that the adults have, and for this reason many species remain undescribed in the larval stage—even the well-studied North American fauna has only about 60% of its species with the larval stages described (Pearson et al. 2006). Nevertheless, the ability to find, collect and rear tiger beetle larva remains an important part of my studies because it not only expands my survey power (most tiger beetles have more restricted temporal occurrence as adults than as larvae) but can also lead to novel findings such as previously undescribed larvae and unknown parasitoid associations.

Tetracha virginica 3rd instar larva | Mississippi Co., Missouri

Tetracha virginica 3rd instar larva | Mississippi Co., Missouri

This larva was dug from its burrow in bottomland forest habitat in the southeastern lowlands of Missouri. However, before I even saw the larva I knew it belonged to the genus Tetracha and probably represented the species T. virginica (Virginia Metallic Tiger Beetle, according to Erwin & Pearson 2008). How did I know this? First, the size of the burrow (~8 mm in diameter) excluded all but one other non-Tetracha species known to occur in Missouri—Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle), a species known to occur only in the dry, rocky, dolomite glades in the White River Hills region of extreme southwestern Missouri. Secondly, while T. carolina (Carolina Metallic Tiger Beetle) is also found in southeastern Missouri, that species has been associated almost exclusively with treeless habitats—at least in southeastern Missouri (K. Fothergill, personal communication). Since the burrow from which this individual was dug was found in wet, bottomland forest, chances were high that it instead represented T. virginica.

Simple, thorn-like outer hooks with much smaller inner hooks distinguish Tetracha larvae from other tiger beetle genera.

Simple, thorn-like outer hooks with much smaller inner hooks distinguish larvae of Tetracha.

Notwithstanding the circumstantial evidence, there are morphological characters that also distinguish both the genus and the species of this larva. Of primary importance are the hooks and setae on the prominent “hump” of the fifth abdominal segment. This hump is braced against the vertical wall of the larval burrow as it sits at the entrance waiting for passing prey. Once the prey is seized, the hump armature provides traction against the burrow wall, preventing the struggling prey from pulling the tiger beetle larva out of its burrow (where it would not only be ineffectual as a predator but also highly vulnerable to predation itself). Tiger beetle larvae can often be distinguished at the generic level by the shape and size of the main hooks. Tetracha larvae have four hooks—two outer and two inner—that are simple and thorn-like, with the inner hooks much smaller than and placed much closer to the outer hooks than to each other (other genera either have six hooks, or they have the outer pair 1) highly curved or 2) the inner pair larger and nearly as close to each other as to the outer hooks). There are also fine details of the pattern of the setae (smaller hairs) on the hump that identify this larva as T. virginica, but the presence of numerous hairs over the surface of the abdominal segments is a much easier character to see in the field (see first photo).

Note the white-margined pronotum and nearly equal sized simple eyes.

Note also the white-margined pronotum and nearly equal sized simple eyes.

Finally, there is that head—two pairs of large, simple eyes sitting behind gaping, cocked jaws that give them an oh so alien aspect! An often metallic, shield-like pronotum sitting behind the head, both used in concert to seal the burrow entrance as the larva lies in wait, serve to complete the alien ensemble but also offer clues to the larva’s identity. All larvae of Tetracha and closely related genera bear a distinctive rim of white around the pronotal margin, making them instantly recognizable even while still sitting in their burrow. Also useful is the relative size of the eyes, which in the case of Tetracha the second pair of eyes are nearly as large as the first pair (Amblycheila and Omus have the second pair distinctly smaller than the first, while Cicindela and related genera also have the eyes more nearly equal-sized).

P.S. This is what I was photographing when my friend Kent Fothergill surreptitiously took this photograph of me!


Erwin, T. L. and D. L. Pearson. 2008. A Treatise on the Western Hemisphere Caraboidea (Coleoptera). Their classification, distributions, and ways of life. Volume II (Carabidae-Nebriiformes 2-Cicindelitae). Pensoft Series Faunistica 84. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, 400 pp.

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

2 thoughts on “Eye to eye to eye to eye with a tiger beetle larva

  1. Very interesting. I wonder if much has been done on their optics. Beetle larvae have very bizarre ocellar visual systems. I an reminded of divineg beetle larva that have over twenty distinct retinas.

    • A summary from my literature on tiger beetle larval vision — The stemmata of tiger beetle larvae are fairly simple despite their relatively large size. The first and second pairs have binocular fields of vision that slightly overlap to create an extra large binocular field of vision. Each stemmatum has a cornea-lens and makes up a single refractive unit. The underlying retina is flat, with the peripheral portion further away from the lens, creating retinal disparity that the larvae use to judge prey location and distance.

      Both tiger beetles and diving beetles belong to the beetle suborder Adephaga, thus, it is interesting to see such variety in visual systems among even fairly closely related groups.


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