In the early 2000s, Chris Brown and I were beginning our general survey of Missouri tiger beetles. Our goal was to characterize the occurrence and distribution of all species within the state. At the time, 22 species were known to occur in Missouri, and our work would uncover the presence of two more—one being a vagrant occurrence of the widespread Cicindelidia trifasciata ascendens (ascendent tiger beetle) (Brown & MacRae 2005); the other being the rare Cylindera celeripes (swift tiger beetle) (MacRae & Brown 2011). Of the species already known from the state, however, some were known from only a few records and hadn’t been seen in the field by either Chris or myself. One such species was Ellipsoptera lepida (ghost tiger beetle), an almost pure white species known to occur in deep, dry sand habitats over most of central North America (Pearson et al. 2015). At that time, I had still seen only the more common species in Missouri, and the combination of its name and unusual, mostly-white color put this species high on my “must see” list.
My first experience would come quickly. In June 2001, Chris and I visited a recent addition to Weldon Spring Conservation Area on the north side of the Missouri River in St. Charles Co. called Darst Bottoms. The area at one time was productive farmland, but the “Great Floods” of 1993 and 1995 left deep deposits of sand over the area. While no longer suitable for agriculture, the process of succession allowed valuable wildlife habitat to develop, and the area was purchased and added to the Conservation Area. By the time of our visit in 2001, early succession had resulted in young forests of mostly eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) surrounding a vast central plain of white sand. Chris and I didn’t know what to expect on that first visit, both of us being in the early stages of our survey of Missouri tiger beetles, but we figured we would find something interesting.
I still remember the moment I first saw E. lepida and realized what it was. We had already found Cicindela formosa generosa (eastern big sand tiger beetle)—the first time I had seen that species in Missouri outside the southeastern lowlands (we would eventually find it at many sites along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and a few smaller interior rivers)—and were searching for additional specimens. We were in a small opening adjacent to the larger central plain when I thought I saw something move near my feet. I stopped to look down but didn’t see anything, so I began walking again while scanning the ground ahead of me. Again, I thought I saw movement nearby and stopped to look, this time pausing a little longer and doing so a little more carefully. That’s when I saw it, and even though I had seen only photographs of the species and museum specimens I recognized it instantly for what it was and yelled out “lepida!” Chris came over to see for himself, and we marveled at the effectiveness of their camouflage—they seemingly were able to disappear right before our eyes even though we were looking right at them.
Over the next few years, Chris and I found the species at several sites along or not too distant from the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers—always on sand deposits deep enough to become dry. We never found them in great numbers, sometimes just single individuals while other sand residents were abundant, and not at all sites where we did find more reliable species such as C. f. generosa and C. tranquebarica (oblique-lined tiger beetle). Pearson et al. (2015) mention that despite the broad distribution of this species across central North America that its actual occurrence is rather spotty and localized and that it has disappeared from many sites where it was previously known to occur. This was our experience in Missouri as well, as many of the museum records we had gleaned for the species no longer appeared to support populations of the beetle. This is likely due, at least in part, to the ephemeral nature of the habitats on which the species depends, at least those along the big rivers that are vulnerable to revegetation and succession back to bottomland forest.
Of course, all of this occurred long before I took up insect macrophotography in 2009, and while I had managed to photograph most of the tiger beetle species in Missouri in the years that followed, E. lepida was one that I continued to lack. In the summer of 2015 I decided to rectify that situation and, when the time was right, returned to Darst Bottoms in hopes of finding and photographing this species. Imagine my surprise when I hiked into the area and, instead of young cottonwood stands surrounding a vast, barren sand plain, I found mature cottonwood forests surrounding a thickly vegetated sand prairie with only isolated patches of barren sand. Needless to say, with such little suitable habitat for the beetles they were neither abundant nor even common. In fact, the only evidence I found that told me they were still there at all was coyote scat containing unmistakable remains of the adult beetles. Skunked on my first effort, I decided to try another spot where we had seen good populations of the beetle—Overton Bottoms Conservation Area along the Missouri River in Cooper and Monteau Counties in central Missouri, now Overton Bottoms South Unit and part of the Big Muddy National Wildlife Area. Like Darst Bottoms, this area had experienced revegetation and succession in the decade+ since my previous visit; however, unlike the former there still remained a vast central plain that, while vegetated, was sparsely vegetated enough to continue providing suitable habitat for the beetle. It took some work, but I eventually found the beetles localized in one part of the sand plain (see photograph #3), and there were enough of them out at the time of my visit that I succeeded in getting the series of photographs shown in this post.
I have fond memories of all 24 tiger beetle species in Missouri—each one presenting a unique collection of experiences that will fuel my love affair with the group for years to come. With E. lepida, the jubilance and excitement of that first, unexpected encounter remains near the top of the list for me.
Brown, C. R. & T. C. MacRae. 2005. Occurrence of Cicindela (Cicindelidia) trifasciata ascendens (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) in Missouri. Cicindela 37(1–2):17–19 [pdf].
MacRae, T. C. & C. R. Brown. 2011. Historical and contemporary occurrence of Cylindera (s. str.) celeripes (LeConte) (Coleoptera: Carabidae: Cicindelinae) and implications for its conservation. The Coleopterists Bulletin 65(3):230–241 [pdf].
Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley, D. P. Duran & C. J. Kazilek. 2015. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, New York, 264 pp. [Oxford description].
© Ted C. MacRae 2017