This past spring I returned to the lowlands of southeastern Missouri in an effort to find and photograph a population of tiger beetles that seems to be unique to the area. The beetles represent Cicindela scutellaris (Festive Tiger Beetle), a widespread species that is common in dry sand habitats across the central and eastern U.S. It is also one of North America’s most polytopic species, with populations in the Great Plains, eastern U.S., Atlantic Coast, southeastern Coastal Plain, and several isolated populations on the western and southwestern peripheries of the species’ range of distribution recognized as distinct subspecies. In Missouri the species is known only from the extreme northwestern, northeastern, and southeastern corners of the state. In all of these areas the populations are found on alluvial sand deposits associated with the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Additional sand deposits are found in the areas between these three widely disjunct areas, but curiously the species has not yet been found in them, despite the presence of other species that occupy these same habitats such as Cicindela formosa (Big Sand Tiger Beetle).
The populations in northern Missouri fall well within the distributional range of subspecies C. s. lecontei and are readily assignable to that taxon based on their wine-red coloration and well developed elytral markings. The population in southeastern Missouri, however, cannot be assigned either to that subspecies or to the more southern subspecies C. s. unicolor, which occurs along the southeastern U.S. Coastal Plain and is characterized by solid green coloration and no elytral markings. Individuals from southeastern Missouri are typically green, as in C. s. unicolor, but usually exhibit a distinct wine overtone from C. s. lecontei that varies greatly in its degree of development. Like C. s. lecontei, the elytra are usually marked, but never as strongly as in C. s. lecontei and sometimes not at all (as in C. s. unicolor). The two individuals shown in these photos represent the typical condition—wine blushing and elytral markings only moderately developed; however, more extreme examples can be seen in photos from fall 2008 and spring 2009 (taken during my “point-and-shoot” days, which explains my desire to photograph these beetles again). The intergradation of characters, their variable development, and the apparent presence of a wide disjunction zone between this population and C. s. lecontei to the north suggest to me that it originated from a relatively recent hybridization event between C. s. lecontei and C. s. unicolor—perhaps during the post-glacial hypsithermal that ended some 5,000 years ago.
While I am happier with these photos than I am with those taken earlier, they don’t represent either the full range of variability seen in the population or the most aesthetically pleasing tiger beetle photographs I’ve ever taken. I made two trips to the southeast this past spring, and on each trip I was successful in finding and photographing only a single, very skittish individual—one on a sandy trail through upland forest (Holly Ridge Conservation Area) and the other along the margin of a sand blowout in a native sand prairie remnant (Sand Prairie Conservation Area). I’ll try again this coming spring and hopefully will be able to show some better photographs.
p.s. Can you tell the difference in the type of flash diffuser I used between these two trips? If so, which one do you like better?
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013
7 thoughts on “The Festive Tiger Beetle in Southeast Missouri”
In west central Michigan, there is a population of C. scutellaris that has the maculation pattern typical of ssp. lecontii, but with a greenish rather than wine-red ground color. The ground color is very similar to your lower photo above.
Interesting. Are all individuals in the population similarly colored or is there some variation?
This was a couple of years ago. My memory is that they were fairly abundant, and that pretty much all of them were that color. Certainly all of my photos were.
The (excellent) Holly Ridge photos have less diffusion on the flashes than in the Sand Prairie photo. I really like the lighting of the beetle on the dead leaves — except for the eye highlights which are slightly distracting, perhaps only because I’m looking for them. The lighting appears flatter on the Sand Prairie photo (esp. on the eyes, where the diffuse highlights do not call attention to the dual light sources as much as at the other locality). But, this flatness of lighting is probably augmented by the uniform flat sand background, lacking the depth cues and highlights/shadows of the leaves. Overall, hard to say which lighting I prefer, mainly because of the different foregrounds/backgrounds of leaves vs. sand which complicates the comparison. May I prefer the Holly Ridge lighting overall (I think it gives more three-dimensionality to the body and appendages), and the softer Sand Prairie diffusion for the eyes? Oh, and I can’t imagine an in-situ beetle photo much more aesthetically pleasing than the middle one.
Very perceptive. At Holly Ridge I was trying out a new lighting idea which consisted of the flash heads mounted on extensible arms, each with a mini soft-box attached to it. That idea proved totally unworkable in the field, not to mention it did little to actually diffuse the light but rather served only to increase the apparent light size (which did help somewhat). I think the dynamism and depth cues you note are exclusively a result of the three-dimensional situation in which the beetle was photographed. I do like the Holly Ridge photos for their composition (and like you especially the middle photo), but the specular highlights and sharp bodycast shadow are, I think, distracting.
After that experience, I switched to yet another diffuser idea, and I like this diffuser very much (a href=”http://wp.me/poP0U-4kN”>Oversized, double-concave diffuser for MT-24EX twin flash). The lack of dimensionality in the Sand Prairie photo is due, I think, mostly to the monotony of the situation in which it was photographed. Perhaps in my continued evolution as a photographer I will actually start using different light sources/diffusers depending on a situational-dependent basis.
How I would have loved to have the current diffuser when I photographed the Holly Ridge beetle—I think those shots would have had the best of both worlds: soft lighting with no specular highlights in the eyes in a dynamic, three-dimensional arena!
That’s one rich looking bug.
These guys are pretty cool. They look like old grandpa beetles with all the white scruffy hairs around their eyes and faces. Lol. Photos look excellent by the way.