Great Basin Collecting Trip iReport

During the last week of August, I teamed up with fellow longhorned beetle enthusiast Jeff Huether to look for species in the genus Crossidius. This exclusively North American genus contains a number of colorful species in the tribe Trachyderini that are associated with woody composites in the genera Ericameria and Chrysothamnus (rabbitbrush) and Gutierrezia (snakeweed). While centered in the vast Great Basin in the western U.S., many species occur further east into the Great Plains, west to the Great Central Valley and deserts of southern California, north into southwestern Canada, and south into mainland Mexico and Baja California.¹ Adults of most species emerge during late summer or fall to coincide with the profusion of yellow blooms that appear on their host plants and upon which the adults can be found feeding, mating, and resting. A conspicuous feature of most species in the genus is extreme polytopism—a consequence of discontinuous host plant distributions across the basin and range topography that has resulted in more or less insular local populations. Not surprisingly, the taxonomic history of the genus is complex, but many of the Great Basin taxa are now regarded as subspecies of two widely ranging species—C. coralinus and C. hirtipes (the latter being, perhaps, the most highly polytopic species of Cerambycidae in all of North America).²

¹ Morris & Wappes (2013) recently described and assigned to this genus a species apparently restricted to relict sand formations in southern Georgia. Its highly disjunct distribution, however, along with significant differences in morphology, habits and biology compared to other species of Crossidius suggest that it might more properly be regarded as a distinct genus.

² Not all longhorned beetle enthusiasts accept the current taxonomy, arguing that species such as C. coralinus and C. hiripes merely reflect clinal patterns of variability. I concede the genus needs further work, as did Linsley & Chemsak (1961), whose generic revision forms the basis for current species/subspecies concepts. I will note, however, that the aforementioned authors examined more than 12,000 specimens during the course of their study, and wholesale dismissal of the subspecies they recognized might be premature until a significantly larger amount of material, preferably supplemented with series of specimens from lesser known geographies as well as molecular data from across their ranges, can be examined.

We flew into Reno and spent the first several days in western Nevada. Jeff arrived the night before I did and, thus, had the chance to scope out Davis Creek Park south of Reno during the morning of my arrival. It must have been to his liking, as after he picked me up at the airport we went straight back to the park and found good numbers of what we consider to be C. hirtipes immaculatus on the stands of rabbitbrush at the park. There were at least two types of rabbitbrush present, with the beetles showing a distinct preference for one over the other (vouchers of both plant species were collected for ID confirmation). Thick haze from the ongoing Rim Fire to the south in the Sierra Nevada had settled over the area, greatly limiting visibility and reducing adjacent Mt. Rose to a faint silhouette but allowing some rather spectacular sunset photos of one of my favorite western jewel beetle species, Agrilus walsinghami, which we found in small numbers on both types of rabbitbrush.

Davis Creek Regional Park

Haze from the Rim Fire settles over Davis Creek Park | Washoe Co., Nevada

The following day we drove to several areas further east near Fallon (Churchill Co.) and along Coal Canyon Road near Lovelock (Pershing Co.), where we found good numbers of C. coralinus temprans on gray rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa). In most spots only a few individuals were found—mostly males, but in one spot south of Fallon we encountered good numbers of the beetles (and the heaviest numbers of mosquitoes from nearby Carson Lake that I have ever experienced!). We were skunked in our attempt to find C. h. bechteli, which has been collected at a few spots across northern Nevada, but we knew it would be a long shot since known records of the subspecies are from mid- to late September. Our visit to the area, however, was not for naught, as the sinking sun in the still smoke-filled sky presented a short window of opportunity for more stunning photos of insects at sunset.

Ted MacRae

Using the “left wrist” technique for Crossidius coralinus temprans on Ericameria nauseosa | Pershing Co., Nevada

Day 3 was spent dropping south along US-95A in western Nevada towards Yearington and Wellington (Lyon Co.). We made a number of stops and encountered C. c. temprans at most of the rabbitbrush habitats we sampled, but our real quarry was several named subspecies of C. hirtipesC. h. rubrescens, and in adjacent Douglas Co., C. h. immaculipennis and C. h. macswainei. For much of the day it looked as though we might not find any of the C. hirtipes subspecies, but finally as we approached Yearington we found what we consider to be C. h. rubrescens hiding among the flowers of yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus). (In fact, we were actually walking back to the car to leave the spot when we finally spotted a mating pair on a flower. It turns out that we were focusing on the larger Ericameria plants preferred by C. coralinus, rather than the smaller Chrysothamnus plants preferred by C. hirtipes.) Considerable effort was required to collect a decent series and obtain field photographs before the setting sun caused the beetles to retreat and become too difficult to find. It would also be my last opportunity to take dramatic sunset photos, this time with C. hirtipes.

Sage grassland

Sage grasslands with established stands of rabbitbrush is perfect Crossidius habitat | Lyon Co., Nevada

Crossidius coralinus

Preparing to photograph a mating pair of Crossidius coralinus temprans | Lyon Co., Nevada

We continued our hunt for the other two C. hirtipes subspecies mentioned above on Day 4 in the area around Wellington in Lyon Co. and adjacent Douglas Co. Those of you who think Nevada is desolate and monotonous desert should take the drive south of Yearington through Walker Canyon and then south of Wellington through Toiyabe National Forest to Sweetwater Summit. I guarantee this will be some of the most spectacular countryside you have ever seen. As with C. h. rubrescens the previous day, it took some effort and trying several spots before we found a population in Douglas Co. west of Wellington that we consider to represent C. h. immaculipennis. They were co-occurring with almost equal numbers of C. ater, a widespread, all-black species that shows no appreciable variation across its range but which has been implicated in providing melanism to several C. hirtipes subspecies through introgressive hybridization (Linsley & Chemsak 1961). Eventually we decided we had sufficient material of C. h. immaculipennis and drove back through Wellington and south towards Sweetwater Summit, stopping at several spots along the way but finding nothing on either the Ericameria or Chrysothamnus. Finally, at the summit we found a single individual of C. h. macswainei, which I photographed later that evening. At the time we thought it was the only individual of this subspecies that we had collected on the trip, but closer examination of the material collected north of Yearington since returning home suggests that it may actually be a mixture of C. h. rubrescens and C. h. macswainei. [Clearly the taxonomy needs to be adjusted if this is the case; either the two taxa are not valid subspecies (in which case intermediates should also be found), or they actually represent two closely related but nevertheless distinct and partially sympatric species.]

Toiyabe National Forest

Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada—what people think…

Toiyabe National Forest

Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada—the real thing (made even more dramatic by the setting sun)!

On Day 5 we continued our southward march, crossing over the Nevada-California border along US-95 and dropping south along the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada—first into Mono Basin and then into Owens Valley. For me it was a return to one of my favorite places on earth, which I last visited way back in 1995 while living in California. We stopped briefly at Topaz Lake and found a few Cicindela o. oregona that proved to be extremely wary (white box photography alert), but our real target was C. h. flavescens, known only from the area around Kennedy Meadow in Inyo Co. Unfortunately, we didn’t pay attention to the county and went instead to Kennedy Meadows in Tuolomne Co.! Needless to say, while we did find some stands of Ericameria we did not find any Crossidius beetles, and it would not be until after the trip was over that we discovered our error. Nevertheless, the drive up the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, over Sonora Pass, and partway down the western flank to Kennedy Meadows allowed us to “clean up” on C. ater and offered spectacular scenery despite the continued cloaking of haze from the now much nearer Rim Fire. Jeff also managed to find the only specimen of C. punctatus that we would see on the trip.

Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass | Mono/Tuolomne Co., California

Pinus contorta murrayana

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta murrayana) cadaver at Sonora Pass

We continued south along US-95 into Mono Basin towards a locality near Mammoth Lakes to look for the spectacular orange subspecies C. c. monoensis. Of course, one cannot drive right through the Mono Lake area without stopping and every Vista Point and at the lake itself to admire its strange, almost moonscape-like tufa towers. It was getting late in the day, so I found myself in a bit of a race to photograph the towers before they were covered by the advancing shadows from the Sierra Nevada to the west. I did not succeed completely, but the resulting photos with contrasting “black and white” towers made for nevertheless interesting photos.

Mono Lake Vista Point

Mono Lake Vista Point along US-395 | Mono Co., California

Great Basin fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes)

Great Basin fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis longipes) at Mono Lake Vista Point

Mono Lake

Tufa towers at Mono Lake | Mono Co., California

Mono Lake

Late afternoon shadows create an interesting “black/white” contrast between shaded and sunlit tufa.

Eventually we resumed our southward trek and, with daylight waning rapidly, arrived at a spot near Mammoth Lakes where Jeff had taken C. c. monoensis in the past. We were rewarded with a few males and females, and I was able to take some rather spectacular field photographs of each. Until now, all of the C. coralinus I had seen were deep red and black, but these were bright orange with only a little bit of black—gorgeous! After failing in our attempt to find C. h. flavescens, finding this subspecies rescued the day as a success, and we were able to complete our drive into Bishop and spend the next day focusing on additional subspecies in Owens Valley and the White Mountains.

Sierra Nevada

The eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada rise dramatically in the distance | Mono Co., California

Sierra Nevada

Mono Basin near Mammoth Lakes (7000 ft)—locality for Crossidius coralinus monoensis | Mono Co., California

Our first stop on Day 6 was just a short 2.5 drive north from our hotel in Bishop, where we found a very nice population of C. c. caeruleipennis. If you think C. c. monoensis is spectacular, wait until you see this subspecies bearing the same bright orange coloration as C. c. monoensis but larger and even less maculated with black—the males are almost pure orange! I presume we were on the early side of things (as with most of the populations we found), as the plants were just on the early side of blooming and the majority of individuals encountered were males (which tend to emerge earlier than females). The occasional E. nauseosa plant in full bloom often had several individuals on it, including mating pairs.

Sage grassland

Owens Valley near Bishop (4000 ft)—locality for Crossidius coralinus caeruleipennis | Inyo Co., California

With success already in hand, we continued south into the White Mountains to the area around Westgard Pass where a particularly dark subspecies—C. h. nubilus is known to occur. As we experienced earlier in the week, success did not come until we stopped searching the larger, more conspicuous Ericameria plants and focused on the much smaller and less conspicuous C. viscidiflorus plants. While I did manage to take some field photographs, the beetles were not numerous and I held some alive for photographs in the hotel room later than night. The beetles also seemed to be curiously patchy in their occurrence, with large stretches of seemingly good plants hosting none and the majority found in two small, localized spots in the area west of the pass.

Westgard Pass

Pinyon-juniper zone near Westgard Pass—locality for Crossidius hirtipes nubilus | Inyo Co., California

Under normal circumstances, I would have been content to close out the day looking for additional beetles to strengthen my series in the hopes of getting a good representation of the variation present in the population, but these were not normal circumstances—we were only a short drive from Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. Despite living in California for five years back in the 1990s, I never took the opportunity to visit this place and explore its incredible stands of Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva). The oldest non-clonal tree in the world, dated to nearly 5000 years old, occurs in this area, and many of the trees in the forest range from 1000–2000 years old. Indescribable is the only adjective that I can offer for one’s first sight of these trees, many gnarled and grotesquely twisted by age and wind, the older ones often with nothing but a narrow strip of living wood connecting the roots to a small group of live branches on an otherwise dead tree.

Pinus longaeva (bristlecone pine)

Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) | Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, Inyo Co., California

Ted C. MacRae

Sitting next to an ancient cadaver—who knows how old it is?

Bristlecone Pine Ancient Forest

Spectacular vistas around every bend at Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Pinus longaeva (bristlecone pine)

Female cones bear longish, incurved bristles on the tips of their scales.

Bristlecone Pine Ancient Forest

Great Basin bristlecone pines are restricted to high elevations in California, Nevada, and Utah.

On Day 7 we left Bishop and headed back north to Mono Basin to take another shot at C. c. monoensis and also look for C. h. rhodopus, the latter being a particularly reddish subspecies known only from Mono Basin. We had not seen the latter in our cursory look at Mono Basin habitats two days ago, and it continued to elude us at several stops in areas supporting the C. viscidiflorus host plants on which we expected it to occur (although we did manage to find a few more C. c. monoensis at the locality near Mammoth Lakes). I had collected C. h. rhodopus almost 20 years ago—my last trip to the Mono Basin—at a spot in the Benton Range at the south end of the Mono Basin (which also happens to be the type locality for the jewel beetle Nanularia monoensis, described by my late friend Chuck Bellamy in his 1987 revision of the genus). As a remembrance of Chuck I thought it would be nice to find and photograph N. monoensis as well, so we headed towards the Benton Range as our last stop in California before heading east through the Great Basin to look for additional C. hirtipes and C. coralinus subspecies. As we drove, we saw robust stands of C. viscidiflorus in Adobe Valley stretching south of Mono Lake towards the northern terminus of the White Mountains and decided to stop on the chance we might find C. h. rhodopus there. It’s a good thing we did, as the beetles were out in force. I tried photographing some individuals in the field, and while I did get some decent shots the beetles were generally too flighty and active to justify the effort. I was also anxious to look for N. monoensis, so I put a live male and female in a vial with a piece of host for photography later that evening and we continued towards the Benton Range.

Adobe Valley

Adobe Valley near the White Mountains—locality for Crossidius hirtipes rhodopus | Mono Co., California

Despite its close proximity to the comparatively lush Adobe Valley, conditions in the Benton Range were exceedingly dry. We searched around a bit, but it was apparent by the lack of any herbaceous plants or fresh growth on perennial plants that the area had not received rain for an extended period of time. In fact, I could not even find a single buckwheat (Eriogonum kearneyi var. monoensis) plant on which to search for jewel beetles. The only beetles seen were an aggregation of ~15 C. ater and C. h. rhodopus adults on a single E. nauseosa plant that, unlike the other plants in the area, somehow managed to achieve full bloom. Nevertheless, it was great to visit the locality and rekindle memories after so many years absence. Once we convinced ourselves that there were truly no more beetles to be had, we began the first leg of our long, 2-day drive across the southern Great Basin for the final phase of the trip.

Benton Range

The Benton Range is the type locality of Nanularia monoensis | Mono Co., California

Benton Range

The White Mountains form a dramatic backdrop behind the Benton Range | Mono Co., California

Ted C. MacRae

The author takes a “pensive” selfie | Benton Range, Mono Co., California

We spent the night in Tonapah, Nevada and began Day 8 by driving east along US-6, stopping along the roadsides periodically whenever particularly promising-looking stands of Ericameria/Chrysothamnus were seen. We had expected to begin finding populations assignable to subspecies C. h. brunneipennis as soon as we left Tonapah, but for the most part searching during the morning hours was fruitless. We did find single male and female examples from south-central Nevada of what seems to best fit C. coralinus coccineus (known mostly from southwestern Utah), but it was not until late morning when we were within about 30 miles of Ely in east-central Nevada that we began finding adults of C. hirtipes brunneipennis. At first they were scarce and difficult to find, ensconced as they were within the flowers of their C. viscidiflorus hosts, but shortly they began to appear in great numbers and offered opportunity for field photographs and good series. We had observed on several days of the trip that C. hirtipes began ‘disappearing’ during late afternoon, in contrast to C. coralinus which tended to settle down within the flowers of their host plant where they could be found even at dusk (and perhaps all night had we searched for them at that time). I now believe that C. hirtipes tends to crawl down to the base of the host plant to spend the night and requires some period of warming temperatures before they come back up to the flowers the following morning, and that this is the reason why we did not succeed in finding populations further to the west in the areas we searched after leaving Tonapah in the morning. In contrast, we rarely failed to succeed in finding C. coralinus in the locations where they occur during early morning or early evening hours.

A short drive further east to Ely got us within range of the darkened subspecies C. h. cerarius, and at the first stop south of town sporting a good stand of C. viscidiflorus we found this one also in good numbers. Another short drive further east to near the Utah border brought us within the western limit of the final C. hirtipes subspecies that we were targeting—C. h. wickhami. Unlike the previous subspecies, which has an extremely limited distribution in east-central Nevada, C. h. wickhami is widespread from east-central Nevada across western Utah and northern Arizona. We waited until we crossed the Utah border, stopped at the first stand of C. viscidiflorus that we saw, and found decent numbers of this subspecies distinguished by its light coloration and distinct sutural stripe.

Great Basin desert

Yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) host for Crossidius hirtipes wickhami | Millard Co., Utah

We needed to make it to Moab, Utah in the evening, so we began the long trek across southern Utah. There is another C. coralinus subspecies known from southwestern Utah that we could have targeted—C. c. coccineus, but we had both already collected examples of this subspecies in Cedar City, Utah during a tour of the Great Western Sand Dunes two years ago. Finding a male and a female of what seem to be this subspecies fulfilled my desire for photography subjects, and there were additional C. coralinus subspecies to be had further east that I had not yet collected. As I first learned two years ago, and which was again confirmed on this trip, southern Utah has some of the most dramatic scenery in all of the western U.S. Period! The photos below are but two examples of the many spectacular sights that I saw, and more now than ever I hope to return to this area in the future for serious exploration.

Sevier Lake

A thunderstorm settles over the Cricket Mountains behind Sevier Lake | Millard Co., Utah

Devil's Canyon

A late afternoon rainbow dissipates over Devil’s Canyon | Emery Co., Utah

The last field day of a trip is always a bit melancholic—I’m never happier than when I’m in the field, and when I’m having particularly good luck it makes the end of the trip even harder to think about. The best cure for melancholy, however, is more success in the field, and Day 9 started off with a bang. We had driven less than 40 miles south of Moab when we saw good looking stands of E. nauseosa and C. viscidiflorus, and on the very first plant we checked sat a spectacular female representing the robust, bright red and heavily marked nominotypical C. coralinus. Only a few more were found during the ensuing search until I found a “mother lode” plant hosting two mating pairs and three singletons. As it was still fairly early in the morning, the beetles were quite calm and I was able to fill my photographic quota of the subspecies with nice field shots of both sexes. We stopped at several more spots as we approached and crossed into Colorado, including Cortez where we found nice numbers of super-sized individuals. Mindful of the time, we tore ourselves away and continued east to the area around Fort Garland in south-central Colorado, where Jeff had previously seen C. c. jocosus—similar to C. c. coralinus but unusually diminutive in comparison. Anticipation, however, got the better of us before we made it to Fort Garland, for after passing through the San Juan Mountains we stopped at a few spots around Monte Vista on the western side of the San Luis Valley (Fort Garland lies further east on the opposite side of the valley). Good fortune awaited us, as we found a handful of individuals at two sites that appeared to represent C. c. jocosus, reducing the importance of getting to Fort Garland and finding them there. The sites where we found these beetles might represent the western limit of distribution for the subspecies, which would seem to be isolated from C. c. coralinus by the intervening San Juan Mountains. It’s a good thing we stopped at those sites, as further east near Fort Garland nearly all of the plants were past peak bloom and no beetles were seen. Only a last ditch stop at a stand of plants just east of Fort Garland produced a single male and single female to add to those we had collected earlier, but it was enough to put a smile on the face and make it easier to accept that a long, successful trip had finally come to an end. We recounted our successes during the 3-hour drive to Denver: 14 of 16 targeted taxa successfully located, plus an additional three taxa not targeted for a total count of 17 named taxa.

Ted MacRae

Photographing insects on Ericameria nauseosa | San Juan Co., Utah

In closing this report, I should note a few caveats:

  1. Identifications are preliminary and based primarily on expected geographical occurrence along with cursory comparison to descriptions and diagnoses published in Linsley & Chemsak (1961). Some modifications to these identifications might occur after collected material has been examined more closely (e.g., the possible co-occurrence of C. h. rubrescens and C. h. macswainei at a locality just north of Yearington, Nevada). This also applies to host plant identifications; however, voucher samples were collected from almost every location and will be submitted to specialists for ID confirmation.
  2. All of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone. This does not mean that I have no photos taken with my ‘real’ camera to share—these will be forthcoming in future posts that examine many of the above mentioned subjects in more detail (as well as a few additional subjects not mentioned above). This also does not mean that these photos are ‘straight from the phone’—they have been post-processed in much the same way I process photos taken with the digital SLR to emphasize their good qualities and minimize their bad ones. I choose to include only iPhone photos in this post since the iPhone is what I mostly use to document a general ‘flavor’ of the trip, saving the digital SLR for true macro-photography or subjects requiring the highest possible quality. Aw heck, here’s a ‘real’ photo of one of the insects I found on the trip to whet your appetite for posts to come:
Crossidius coralinus temprans on Ericameria nauseosa | Churchill Co., Nevada

Crossidius coralinus temprans (female) on stem of Ericameria nauseosa | Churchill Co., Nevada

REFERENCES:

Bellamy, C. L. 1987. Revision of the genera Nanularia Casey and Ampheremus Fall (Coleoptera, Buprestidae, Chalcophorinae). Contributions in Science, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History 387:1–20.

Linsley, E. G. & J. A. Chemsak. 1961. A distributional and taxonomic study of the genus Crossidius (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae). Miscellaneous Publications of the Entomological Society of America 3(2):25–64 + 3 color plates.

Morris, R. F., III & J. E. Wappes. 2013. Description of a new Crossidius LeConte (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae: Cerambycinae: Trachyderini) from southern Georgia with comments on its biology and unusual distribution. Insecta Mundi 0304:1–7.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle

Great Sand Dunes National Park | Saguache and Alamosa Counties, Colorado (click for 1680 x 887 version)

Last year’s Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip entered its last day as an unqualified success. Travel partner Jeff Huether and I were doing the “Great Western Sand Dune Tour” on a quest to find and photograph some of North America’s most geographically restricted tiger beetles. The first four days featured successful visits to northwestern Colorado’s Maybell Sand Dunes for Cicindela scutellaris yampae and Cicindela formosa gibsoni, southeastern Idaho’s St. Anthony Sand Dunes for Cicindela arenicola, and southwestern Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes for the prize of the trip—Cicindela albissima. The only endemic that we had failed to find was Cicindela waynei at southwestern Idaho’s Bruneau Sand Dunes (hopefully this was a result of poor fall emergence conditions rather than an indication of further decline of this perilously endangered species).

Small sand dune west of GSDNP in the Nature Conservancy's Medano-Zapata Ranch.

Day 5 featured a visit to southwestern Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes to look for the endemic Cicindela theatina. As on every day previous of the trip, the morning drive saw cool but rising temperatures under bright, sunny skies, so we were optimistic about our chances. Between Great Sand Dunes National Park (type locality of the beetle) and The Nature Conservancy’s Medano-Zapata Ranch west of the park, the entire 290 km² range of C. theatina is on protected land. Not knowing whether the beetle would be out and, if so, how extensively it would occur, our plan was to approach the Park from the west through Zapata Ranch and stop at any sand dunes we sighted along the way until we found the beetle.  It didn’t take long—as soon as we entered the Ranch we began to see small sand dunes in the distance, and within minutes after making the 1-km hike towards one particularly promising looking dune we saw the beetles. Even though this was the fifth western sand dune endemic I had seen in as many days, the first moment I laid eyes upon it was no less exciting—flashing red and green on coppery, white marked elytra, it seemed all hair and teeth!

Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle (Cicindela theatina) | Medano-Zapata Ranch

Despite this being my first sighting of the species, there was no doubt about it’s identity. The only other tiger beetle that occurs with and could possibly be mistaken for C. theatina is the blowout tiger beetle, C. lengi; however, the broad marginal band that runs completely around the elytra and the green/brown dorsal coloration of C. theatina are enough to distinguish it from that species. Temperatures were still a bit on the cool side, but the beetles were already remarkably active and skittish. Like the other sand dune species we had already seen, they were enormously difficult to approach—numerous failed attempts were necessary before I encountered the slightly more cooperative female shown in these photos (although she still required several minutes of stalking to get her sufficiently accustomed to my presence to allow these shots).

Like most sand dune tiger beetles, adults are densely hairy on the lateral and ventral surfaces.

Adults ''hug'' the sand for warmth during the cooler morning hours.

The dense covering of white hairs on the lateral and ventral surfaces of the adults belies their adaptation to the abrading sands of their wind-swept habitat. Scouring sands, however, are not the only hardships that the adults must contend with. Temperatures on the dunes can range from as low as 40° F on a chilly morning to nearly 140° F during the heat of the day. Accordingly, much of the adult beetle’s activities revolve around thermoregulation to maintain optimal body temperatures for activity (Pineda and Kondratieff 2003). These include not only stilting, shade-seeking, and mid-day burrowing to avoid excessive warming (see my post  for examples of these behaviors), but basking to gain warmth when temperatures are still a bit too cool for effective foraging (photo above).

Fabulous metallic red and green highlights on the head and pronotum contrast with the reddish brown elytra and their white lateral markings.

Despite the fact that the entire range of this species is encompassed by protected land, WildEarth Guardians filed a petition for federal listing as an endangered species in 2007 (Tweit 2010). Whether protection will be granted remains to be seen—Coral Pink’s C. albissima has a global range only 1.3% the size of C. theatina‘s range (only slightly more than half of which is on protected land), yet that species has been awaiting listing for nearly three decades now! (Too bad C. theatina doesn’t have real fur, feathers, or those endearing mammalian eyes that would surely allow it to jump to the front of the line.)

For the first time in BitB Challenge history, we have a 4-way tie for the win. Dorian Patkus, Mr. Phidippus, Mike Baker, and David Winter all share the honors for . Mr. Phidippus is the big winner, however, as he strengthens his grip on the overall lead with a lead of 13 or more points over his nearest rivals (Roy, Tim Eisele, Mike Baker, and Dennis Haines). The competition is far from over though—a single misstep is all it would take to see the emergence of a new leader before this session is over.

REFERENCES:

Pineda P. M. and B. C. Kondratieff. 2003. Natural history of the Colorado Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, Cicindela theatina Rotger. Transactions of the American Entomological Society 129(3/4):333–360.

Tweit, S. J. 2010. Beetle Mania. National Parks 84(4):24–25.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Cicindela scutellaris yampae – Yampa Festive Tiger Beetle

In A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada (Pearson et al. 2006), Cicindela scutellaris yampae (Yampa Festive Tiger Beetle) is one of 223 species and subspecies listed in the book’s index to species and subspecies. Although the book’s alphabetical listing places it second to last in the list, it surely must be considered near the top of any list based on beauty. It is also among the most geographically restricted tiger beetles in North America, restricted to the Maybell Sand Dunes in northwestern Colorado where it occurs with the equally beautiful, rare, and restricted Cicindela formosa gibsoni (Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle). Like that subspecies, C. s. yampae was one of six endemic sand dune tiger beetles targeted in this year’s Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™, and as these photos show I was lucky enough to find it.

Cicindela scutellaris yampae | nr. Maybell, Colorado

As a species, C. scutellaris is one of North America’s most widely distributed and polytopic species, with the nominate and lecontei forms inhabiting a wide swath of the Great Plains and Midwest.  Around the eastern, southern, and western perimeters of its geographical distribution occur numerous named subspecies exhibiting a tremendous diversity of variations on the species’ “normal” coloration and maculation.  Cicindela s. yampae is most similar to the nominate subspecies due to its green head and prothorax with purple-red elytra, but it differs in possessing a broad white maculation on the side of each elytron (top photo).  There are individuals, however, in which the maculation is reduced to isolated spots (bottom photo), resembling somewhat the pattern of maculations seen in C. s. lecontei further to the east.

C. scutellaris yampae w/ reduced maculations

Pearson et al. (2006) note that records over the years suggest the remaining populations of this beetle are small. We did not see many individuals on our visit to the type locality east of Maybell early this past week (perhaps no more than seven total), and we saw none at a formerly larger sand dune about 10 miles west of Maybell.  In past years this latter site has supported good numbers of the beetle, but it has apparently succumbed to vegetational encroachment of the formerly more open sand dune. As far as I am aware there are no conservation measures in place on any level to protect these remaining populations and ensure that adequate suitable habitat remains to enhance the beetle’s long-term prospects.

REFERENCE:

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Cicindela formosa gibsoni… or not!

Last Friday I began the 2011 Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™. This year’s edition was actually a last-minute change—my original plans to collect wood for rearing wood-boring beetles in south Texas thwarted by that state’s long and continuing drought (along with the unwillingness of some of the area’s federal wildlife refuge managers to grant my research study permits despite the work I’ve done there in past years—apparently only institutional and not personal research is now deemed credible by these courageous individuals who are doing their best to protect the natural resources in their charge). My travel funds are limited, and rather than throw good money at a bad situation, I decided to pursue greater chances of success and make the trip that I have wanted to do for some time now—the Great Sand Dunes tour through the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin. The target species include many of the classic western sand dune species, and I hope to feature most of them in the days and weeks after the conclusion of the trip this coming weekend.

Cicindela formosa gibsoni | nr. Maybell, Colorado

The first of these target species that I encountered is the subject of this post, Cicindela formosa gibsoni (Gibson’s Big Sand Tiger Beetle).  This large, robust, and gorgeously marked subspecies is highly restricted in occurrence, curiously to two areas separated by more than 1,000 km—the Maybell Sand Dunes in northwestern Colorado (Moffat County) and the Great Sand Dunes of southwestern Saskatchewan.  It is distinguished from the nominate form and other subspecies by having the white markings of the elytra so expanded in most individuals that they coalesce and cover nearly the entire elytral surface.  The result of such a large white surface with contrasting red-purple head, thorax, and elytral sutural area is one of North America’s most spectacularly marked tiger beetle species.  The individual photographed here was one of many observed a few days ago on the Maybell Sand Dunes¹, and I feel truly lucky to have been able to personally witness these striking beetles flying powerfully across the dunes in their small home range, landing far away with the comical bounce and tumble that is characteristic of this and the other subspecies.

¹ In the interest of full disclosure, these photos were taken later in the day using subjects confined in a terrarium of native substrate. I had intended to photograph them in the field; however, they unexpectedly began digging burrows around 2 p.m., and my efforts to stalk the last few stragglers before they disappeared were not successful.


An interesting situation occurs regarding the taxonomy of this subspecies.  Despite the nearly identical appearance of adults from both the Saskatchewan and Colorado populations, logic and differences in larval coloration suggest that these two populations have arisen independently, their common appearance a result of convergence rather than shared ancestry.  Molecular studies are in progress to determine more conclusively whether this is true (hopefully augmented with material collected during this trip).  The subspecies was originally described based on specimens collected in Saskatchewan, thus, if convergence is confirmed the Maybell population will find itself needing a new name.

Congratulations to Doug Taron, who narrowly beat perennial heavyweight Ben Coulter, Tracy Mormon and Mr. Phidippus for the ID Challenge #12 win.  The overall standings remain unchanged, with Ben still in the lead with 65 points, Mr. Phidippus 2nd with 54 points, and Roy completing the podium at 39 points.  The final standings may seem like a lock, but there will still be one more challenge in the session—anything can happen!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Sweet Sixteen!

The 7th Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ is officially over – Chris and I rolled back into town a little after midnight last night. It was an amazing trip – perfect weather, unparalleled scenery, and a record-breaking 16 species of tiger beetles seen in 13 localities across four states. Not only does this beat my previous trip record of 13 species, but we did it with only five days in the field. At the time of my previous update, we had visited several locations in the South Dakota Badlands and Nebraska Pine Ridge and found ten different tiger beetle species, including Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) – our top priority for the trip – C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle), and C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle). Our plan for the next day was to visit the Badlands of Wyoming to look for C. decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle – appropriately) and the Yampa River Valley of northwestern Colorado to look for C. scutellaris yampae and C. formosa gibsoni, all three of which we managed to find (though with caveats – stay tuned). Our originally planned final field day was to take us back into Wyoming to look for C. longilabris (boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the mountains east of Laramie and the Nebraska Sand Hills to look for the delicate little C. limbata before heading back home. However, we were finally paid a visit by “the skunk” and did not see any of these species (although our sighting of C. limbata (common claybank tiger beetle) in Wyoming did officially break the old trip record). Not wanting to end the trip on a disappointing day, we delayed our departure for home yesterday and visited two more sites at the eastern edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills (sites M and N in the above map) – a clay bank site where we saw a robust population of C. denverensis (to augment the single individual we had seen earlier in the trip) and several C. splendida (splendid tiger beetle), and another sand dune/blowout system where we at last succeeded in finding C. limbata.

The day after the end of the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Trip™ is usually a somewhat depressing day for me. Not only is the trip over, but likely so is the entire insect collecting season. I know I need the down time to process the specimens and knowledge acquired during the season, but the field work itself remains my favorite aspect of this pursuit. Nevertheless, the experiences from this trip will fuel my memories for years to come, and in the next weeks I’ll share some of the stories that unfolded. Until then, I leave you with this portrait of C. pulchra – looking rather annoyed with me for my persistent efforts to take his photograph.

Cicindela pulchra - the ''beautiful'' tiger beetle

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Digging tiger beetles

After driving almost 600 miles on Friday, I was ready for some tiger beetle action. A quick 2-hour drive this morning got me to the first set of localities in extreme southwestern Nebraska and just across the border into Colorado (“B” thru “D” in the previously posted map). Compared to the other localities I have lined up for the trip, these were the most vague – based on published records from more than a century ago with no recent ‘ground intelligence.’ I wasn’t too concerned about having success at these spots, I just wanted a potentially interesting area to explore after a day of driving before completing my voyage to the first real target areas up in the northwestern corner of Nebraska. I could’ve taken a more direct line along I-80 and explored areas along that route, but I’ll be exploring that route on my return trip.

My first stop at Benkelman was a bust – I was looking for some sand blows in the hopes of finding Cicindela limbata, but a half hour of so of driving around the area turned up nothing. I stopped at some exposed clay to see if I might encounter C. denverensis but only saw a couple of the ubiquitous C. punctulata. Haigler – a half hour to the west – was more productive. I found a spot with access down along the Republican River (at only 2 yards in width, it is beyond me how this qualifies as a “river”) and found several typical sand associated species – C. scutellaris (pictured) and C. formosa, both nominotypical forms which look very different from the populations we have in Missouri, and several C. tranquebarica individuals that show the bold markings characteristic of the northern Great Plains subspecies kirbyi (the first time I’ve seen this subspecies). My 104 year-old literature reference suggested C. fulgida occurred around salt marshes in the area, but no such habitats were found – probably degraded long ago, or even worse obliterated in the interest of “improving” the land for agriculture. Another half hour drive got me to Wray, just across the border in Colorado, where C. limbata again had been recorded from sand hills above the Republican Trickle. These sand hills were easily located, but the completely barren blows that the species requires, again, were not found – probably allowed/encouraged to grow over. As it was now the heat of the day (a very pleasant low 80’s), the common sand species C. formosa and C. scutellaris were now digging in to avoid the heat.

Although it is well known that adult tiger beetles dig burrows to spend the night, I haven’t really seen much in the literature that talks about their daytime burrowing habits, how to recognize the burrows, and how to dig them out (okay, so now my double entendre of a title makes sense, cuz you see I really ‘dig’ tiger beetles… and I’m digging them from their burrows… oh well, it seemed funny when I thought of it). Many other insects also burrow in the sand, and some of them – especially those of the many ‘digger’ wasps and ground nesting bees – can look very similar to (and sometimes outnumber) those of tiger beetles. In my experience, adult tiger tiger beetle burrows have a more ‘flattened’ aspect to them (1st photo), while those of wasps and bees are more rounded. Fresh burrows from both groups will have moist diggings thrown to one side (in old burrows – often uninhabited – the diggings will be dry), but those of tiger beetles appear more ‘fanned’ while those of hymenopterans are more ‘piled.’ I use a knife to excavate the sand away from the entrance in thin vertical slices (2nd photo), slightly undercutting the burrow to prevent sand from falling into it (and making it impossible to follow). Wasp and bee burrows look more round during excavation and often make a hard turn downward, while those of tiger beetles continue looking very flattened and usually stay rather shallow. If somebody is home, they will be encountered without too much digging – these photos show a C. scutellaris adult peaking out head first and a C. formosa who was still in the act of excavating (done by kicking the sand backwards while backing towards the entrance). I stumbled onto this technique last year during my first encounter with C. limbata – had I not done so I probably would’ve walked away with only a single specimen.

Tomorrow, I hope to have encountered C. nebraskana and C. lengi. Cicindela decemnotata is a long shot, but hope springs eternal…

A hunting we will go!

Maps have been prepared. Relevant emails from my esteemed colleagues to the northwest have been read and re-read. Summary sheets on the distribution, biology, and biogeography of the many different species I hope to encounter are in hand. Google Earth images of each locality I plan to visit – annotated with potential species occurrences and pinpointing precise locations of their likely habitats – have been assembled into a Powerpoint presentation, and detailed driving directions from Point “A” to Point “B”… all the way to Point “X” (home!) have been determined. All of this has been printed out and organized into a 3-ring binder. Why the extraordinary attention to detail? Because…

It’s time for the annual fall tiger beetle trip!

View Larger Map

The annual fall tiger beetle trip started several years ago when I, along with my friend and colleague Chris, began studying Missouri’s tiger beetle fauna. At first it was a diversion – buprestids and cerambycids are pretty well played out by fall, but tiger beetles across much of the U.S. exhibit a unique spring/fall fauna that is quite distinct from the summer fauna. Chris and I would go to different parts of Missouri, documenting the species encountered to fill in distributional data gaps. It was on these trips that I discovered how much I truly love early fall collecting – the cool air, the crisp smells, the long sharp shadows, and a landscape of foliage ever so lightly tinged with shades of red and yellow while grasses morph into fields of gold. In recent years, I’ve begun adventuring beyond Missouri’s borders on these fall trips, allured by the diversity of species found in the Great Plains – species alien to Missouri in an equally alien landscape. First, it was Barber County, Kansas, with its red gypsum hills inhabited by the aptly named Cicindela pulchra (beautiful tiger beetle) – deep wine-red and iridescent purple flashing across the barren red clay. Then last year I got my first taste of the Sand Hills of Nebraska at their farthest eastern extent. I watched in amazement as Cicindela limbata (sandy tiger beetle) – vivid white and metallic green – danced across the surface of sand blows, undaunted by scouring 30 mph winds. It was on that trip that I decided a long weekend wasn’t cutting it – I needed to take a whole week and get myself into the heart of the Great Plains. The annual fall tiger beetle weekend has just become the annual fall tiger beetle week.

As the map above indicates, I’ve got a rather ambitious itinerary of locations that I’d like to visit – 22 in all. I leave tomorrow, and if I have planned properly (and have a little luck) I might be able to visit all of them in the 9 days I have set aside for the trip. My “trip bible” will be my constant companion, along with my already worn copy of the newly issued Tiger Beetles of South Dakota & Nebraska (Spomer et al. 2008), as I explore deep into the Sand Hills and experience for the first time ever the Black Hills of South Dakota. I’ll even sneak over into Colorado and Wyoming for a spot or two. Unfortunately, my faithful colleague isn’t able to join me. I tried to seduce him with visions of Cicindela limbata and C. lengi (blowout tiger beetle) in the numerous sand blows, C. fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) around countless alkaline lakes, C. longilabris (Boreal long-lipped tiger beetle) in the high pine forests, and C. nebraskana (prairie long-lipped tiger beetle) and (if we’re really really lucky) C. decemnotata (Badlands tiger beetle) just sneaking into the shortgrass prairies of the extreme northwestern corner of Nebraska. I reminded him of my (wanting) photographic skills and the images we would have to settle for if his talent and equipment didn’t accompany me. I almost had him, but in the end he muttered some lame excuse about his 15-month old baby and wife needing him (just kidding, Chris!).

The map above should be fully interactive, so give it a click and follow me along on this adventure. If you happen to be at any of the spots marked by a balloon and see a khaki-clad fellow – insect net in one hand, camera in the other – how’s about joining me for a bit of tiger beetle hunting.