Tiny little slivers of life

Day 1 of the 2010 Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ had been an unqualified success.  Not only did we achieve our top goal of the trip – seeing good numbers of the recently discovered South Dakota population of Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle), but we also saw C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle) and a variety of other interesting insects in the nearby Nebraska Pine Ridge.  For Day 2, our destination was Monroe Canyon on the north face of the Pine Ridge escarpment, but on the way there we decided to check out some roadside clay banks in the town of Crawford.  Despite their appearance as perfect tiger beetle habitat, all we saw was a single individual of the normally ubiquitous C. purpurea audubonii (Audubon’s tiger beetle).  The area looked quite dry, and in fact there was little insect life of any kind present… or so I thought.  As I stood there looking out onto the embankment while deciding my next move, I glanced down at a nearby composit shrub with small yellow flowers.  These are often attractive to a variety of beetles (Crossidius longhorned beetles would be nice!), but I saw none.  I started to move on, but before I did I noticed some tiny little slivers of life moving about on the flowers.  Kneeling down to take a closer look, I saw that they were moths – in fact, they were some of the smallest moths that I had ever seen, and the shrub was covered with them.  Now, I may pride myself on my broad-based entomology knowledge, but when it comes to microlepidopterans there is a decided gap in that knowledge.  I really had no idea what they might be, but for some reason the combination of their unknown identity and tiny size became for me an irresistible photographic challenge (made truly challenging by the unrelenting prairie wind).  I’m fortunate that Chris also became distracted photographing something – any other collecting partner surely would have grown impatient waiting for me to finally be satisfied I’d gotten some good shots.

As far as I can tell, these moths represent something in the genus Scythris or perhaps Neoscythris.  These are the so-called flower moths, placed either in the family Scythrididae (Microleps.org and Moth Photographers Group) or subfamily Scythridinae of the Xylorictidae (BugGuide.net and Tree of Life).  According to Microleps.org, the life histories of relatively few scythridid species have been determined – the few that have showing a preference for feeding (usually internally, e.g., as leaf miners) on members of the Asteraceae.  There are images of several species of Scythrididae at the aforementioned sites; however, it’s a large group, and the individuals in these photos don’t appear to match any of the illustrated species.  Perhaps Chris Grinter or some other microlepidopterophile will chance upon this post and either confirm or further elucidate the identity of these individuals. 

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010