Tortoise beetles on the job

Back in late February and early March I did my annual tour through the soybean growing regions of central and northern Argentina to look at insect efficacy trials (pretty amazing to me still when I think about it—I actually get paid to spend time in Argentina looking for insects!). Normally on such trips there is no shortage of soybean insects to occupy my attentions—of all the large-acre row crops, soybean probably has the greatest diversity of insect associates, and in South America it is rare for any soybean field to not experience pressure from at least one of them. Soybeans, however, are not the only plants that occur in soybean fields—there are also weeds, many of which also have their own suite of insect associates. Sometimes these weed-associated insects can be even more interesting than the soybean insects I’m look for.

Botanochara angulata?

Botanochara angulata? mating pair | Córdoba Prov., Argentina

On this particular day, as I walked through a soybean field in central Córdoba Province I noticed distinctive red and black tortoise beetles (family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Cassidinae) on some of the plants. I thought it odd that tortoise beetles would be on soybean, as I’m not aware of any soybean associates in the group. A closer look, however, quickly revealed that the beetles were not on the soybean plants themselves, but rather on vines that were weaving their way through the plants. The plant was akin to bindweed and obviously a member of the same plant family (Convolvulaceae), but none of my field mates knew which of the many weedy species of the family that occur in Argentina that this particular plant represented. Species of Convolvulaceae are, of course, fed upon by a great diversity of tortoise beetles—always a treat for this coleopterist to see, and it was all I could do to concentrate on the task at hand and finish doing what I needed to do so I could turn my attention to finding and photographing some of these beetles. Once I began photographing them I found them surprisingly uncooperative (not my normal experience with tortoise beetles), but I soon found a mating pair that was a little more cooperative (probably because they were mating), with the above photo being my favorite of the bunch.

Paraselenis tersa?

Paraselenis tersa? female guarding her eggs | Córdoba Prov., Argentina

As I was searching for beetles to photograph, I encountered some yellow tortoise beetles associated with the same plant but that I had not noticed earlier. Unlike the conspicuously red and black colored species (which seems to best match Botanochara angulata according to Cassidinae of the World), the yellow species (which I presume represents Paraselenis tersa, also ID’d using the same site) seemed almost cryptically colored. When I finished taking photographs of B. angulata, I began searching for a P. tersa to photograph and encountered the female in the above photograph guarding her eggs—score!

Undetermined cassidine larvae.

A single tortoise beetle larva was encountered.

Tortoise beetle larvae are always a delight to see as well—their dinosaurian armature and fecal adornments, both obviously designed to dissuade potential predators, form one of the most ironic defensive combinations one can find. If additional tactics become necessary, they are among the few insects that are known to actually “circle the wagons” (the technical term for this being “cycloalexy“). While I only found a single larvae (of which species I don’t know), its presence seems to further suggest that at least one of the species represented an actively developing population and that the adults I found were not just hangers-on putzing around until winter (such as it is in central Argentina) forced them to shut down for the season.

Undetermined cassidine larva.

Spiky spines and a pile of poop make formidable defenses.

My impression is that tortoise beetles are by-and-large noxious to predators, thus explaining why so many species in the group exhibit aposematic coloration. However, the apparent cryptic coloration of Paraselenis makes me wonder if this is not universally true. It seems especially odd for two species to feed on the exact same species of plant but only one of the species to be noxious, which leads me to even more questions about how two species feeding on the same plant at the same time avoid direct competition with each other. I wondered if perhaps one species was on the wax while the other was on the wane (late February is well along into the latter part of the season in central Argentina), but the fact that both species were involved in reproductive activities (mating in Botanochara and egg guarding in Paraselenis) suggests this was not the case.

Ted MacRae photographing tortoise beetles.

A candid photo of me photographing tortoise beetles (and revealing my technique for getting “blue sky” background photographs).

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

7 thoughts on “Tortoise beetles on the job

  1. It’s pretty understandable why the poop defense is so popular, for invertebrates and vertebrates. It’s pretty effective at turning down appetites. Nice sky technique–I’m still the person w/her head in the dirt to get that angle. Apparently, it’s the price of being SUPER literal, so just lifting the bug & leaf NEVER OCCURRED to me. =)

    • Once you figure out how to carefully detach a leaf or flower w/o disturbing the insect sitting on it, a whole new world of compositional possibilities is opened up. I carry a small scissors to facilitate this (keeps from ‘jerking’ the plant).

  2. Regarding the coloration issue, could it be that a newly introduced predator has some level of resistance to the toxin both carry, thus giving an advantage to the cryptically colored species? It would be interesting to see which species had higher density in a non-agricultural environment. Also, might not both strategies work as defense mechanisms against different types of predators, thus affording each some level of protection?

    • I suppose it’s also possible that the yellow coloration IS aposematic, and the fact that I didn’t notice them doesn’t mean that it really is cryptic coloration. Or perhaps the coloration has nothing to do with chemical defense but something else. My impression is that ants are the main enemies of tortoise beetles, against which I would think aposematism would be minimally effective (kind of along the same line as your last comment). Lots of questions.

  3. Hi Ted

    Love the way you put some real ‘blue sky’ in the background, and simply using a piece of paper as a diffuser! Nice pics, well done!

    Allen Sundholm
    Sydney, Australia

  4. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 25/04/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast


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