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.
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.
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!
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.
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 C. MacRae 2014