The “best” Eleodes suturalis

Eleodes suturalis - "sutured" clown beetle

Testing with my new diffuser setup¹ continues. I’ve kept this “sutured” clown beetle (Eleodes suturalis) alive since last July as a terrarium-mate with my Great Plains giant tiger beetles (Amblycheila cylindriformis). The first photos I took of it in the terrarium with the old diffusers (Sto-Fen + Puffers) can only be described as “ho-hum.” The next series (with the beetle cleaned up a bit) was taken in a white box with indirect flash and represented a nice improvement over the first shots. Here, the beetle is back in the terrarium on a piece of bark using direct flash and the new diffuser. I think it has the best of both worlds – nicely diffused lighting on a natural substrate (without the need for a white box). Yes, the focus is a bit off in the head area – the beetle was really not very cooperative during the shoot, and I was just interested in seeing how the lighting would look without spending too much time trying to capture the “perfect” shot.

¹ Photos of the diffuser and instructions on how to make it are coming, I promise! I’ve made a few improvements over the prototype by eliminating the tape to hold things together and am just working on the attachment to the MT-24EX flash bracket.

I really hope this diffuser works out for me in the field!

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16), direct Canon MT-24EX flash w/ oversized concave diffuser. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

…the “better” Eleodes suturalis

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really wasn’t satisfied with the photographs I took of the clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis, that I brought back from Oklahoma. I had placed the beetle in a terrarium of native soil and taken the obligatory whole beetle and head close-up photographs, both showing all the characters needed to identify the species in adequate detail. They were good, scientific photos, but they weren’t very exciting. In fact – they were boring! Now, I know not every subject I photograph is going to be a wower (the giant desert centipede I recently featured probably setting that standard), but it is important to me that the photographs I post here at least be interesting. After taking those first E. suturalis photographs, then being underwhelmed as I brought them up one-by-one on the computer, I started thinking about whether certain insects are just ‘homely’, and no matter how you photograph them they will still be homely. Eleodes suturalis is by no means a homely beetle in real life, but that is due mostly to the impressiveness of its size – a quality not easy to project in photographs.  Beyond that, its somber coloration, lack of unusual morphological modifications, and “beady little eyes” (fide Adrian) don’t offer much else in the way of help.  Combine that with the unflattering salmon coloration of its native soil as a substrate and an exoskeleton just shiny enough to cause annoying specular highlights, and you’ve got a recipe for really boring beetle photographs!

That’s when it occurred to me to try photographing the beetle in a white box.  I’ve only just begun to experiment with this technique and have been impressed with its ability to make somber-colored subjects (e.g., Gromphadorina portentosa) attractive and truly beautiful subjects (e.g. Buprestis rufipes) simply stunning.  The sharp, clean environment of a white box demands a clean beetle, so I gave the beetle (who had done much digging since the previous photo shoot) a good soaking and scrubbing (to the beetle’s great disapproval!).  Yes, I know there is still some dirt on him, but I think a dental pick and wire brush would have been needed to remove every last bit, caked on as it was!  Despite that, I think I achieved the desired effect – specular highlights… gone!  Boring background… gone!  Clean and crisp and ready to impress! The photos also do a much better job of highlighting the 3-dimensionality of the beetle than the original photographs.  Of the many photos I took, my favorite is featured above, and below I present two more that closely approximate the vantage of the two photos I posted from the first shoot in a side-by-side comparison.

For those of you wondering how I managed to secure the beetle’s cooperation for these photos, I used a modification of the “lens cap” technique, covering the beetle with a large glass bowl instead.  The beetle crawled around under the bowl for a bit but eventually would end up settled down against the edge.  By carefully lifting the bowl I was able to avoid disturbing the beetle and fire a few shots before it would start wandering again.  I just repeated the process until I was satisfied I had a few good shots in the sequence.

Does this mean an end to my preference for in situ photographs?  Certainly not.  But some beetles just look better in white!

Photo Details:
White box: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18-20), Canon MT-24EX flash, indirect. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).
Terrarium: same except f/18, direct flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The real Eleodes suturalis

I recently posted a photograph of a clown beetle (Eleodes hispilabris) (family Tenebrionidae) that I found last July in the Glass Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma.  I had encountered that individual while stumbling through the mixed-grass prairie in the middle of the night in search of the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis).  Although I eventually found the latter species, it took a few hours, during which time I was forced to examine numerous individuals of another clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis – perhaps the most conspicuously common clown beetle in the Great Plains.  I didn’t bother to take photographs of them, focused as I was on my tiger beetle search and owing to the fact that this was not the first time I’d encountered that species in abundance (the first time being many, many years ago as they crossed the highway en masse just a few miles north of the Glass Mountains in Barber Co. Kansas).  In fact, I was becoming rather annoyed with them due to their great similarity in size and coloration to the object of my desire¹, and only when I found the previously photographed individual doing the defensive “head stand” so characteristic of the group did I relent and break out the camera for a series of shots (not easy in the dark of night).

¹ Wrigley (2008) even suggested a mimetic association for Amblycheila cylindriformis and Eleodes suturalis due to their similarity in size, shape and coloration (black with a reddish-brown sutural stripe).

Of course, that individual turned out not to be E. suturalis, but the closely related species E. hispilabris, a fact that I did not realize until several days later as I was examining the photographs more closely. Fortunately, I happened to bring home with me a live individual of what truly represents E. suturalis, which I show in these photographs.  I’m not sure exactly why I brought a live one home with me – I’ve done more and more of this in recent years, mostly just to observe them and see what they do.²  I think in this case, I was intrigued by the possible mimetic association between this species and A. cylindriformis and wanted an individual for comparison with the several live A. cylindriformis individuals that I also brought back with me.

² The singular focus on collecting “specimens” that I had during my younger years seems to be giving way to a desire to know more about species as living entities and not just their external morphology.

Unlike E. hispilabris (my identification of which I only consider tentative), there can be little doubt that the individual in these photographs represents E. suturalis.  No other clown beetle in the Great Plains exhibits the sharply laterally carinate elytra and broadly explanate (spread outward flatly) pronotum (Bernett 2008).  The reddish-brown sutural stripe of the distinctly flattened elytra is also commonly seen in this species, although occasional individuals of a few other clown beetle species exhibit the stripe as well (including E. hispilabris, which likely was the reason I assumed it represented E. suturalis).  All of the characters mentioned above can be seen in the photographs shown here.  However, I nevertheless find the photos rather unsatisfying.  If you think you know why, feel free to comment, otherwise you can wait for the “better” photos…

Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

REFERENCES:

Bernett, A. 2008. The genus Eleodes Eschscholtz (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae) of eastern Colorado. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 81(4):377–391.

Wrigley, R. A.  2008. Insect collecting in Mid-western USA, July 2007.  The Entomological Society of Manitoba Newsletter 35(2):5–9.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Clown beetle surprise

As I slowly scanned my flashlight through the darkness across the mixed-grass prairie in the Glass Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma last July, there was one thing that I hoped not to see (prairie rattlesnake, unless from afar) and one thing that I hoped more than anything to see (Great Plains giant tiger beetle, Amblycheila cylindriformis). Fortunately, I encountered none of the former and found several of the latter.  It took awhile before I saw the first one, but in the meantime I saw all too abundantly the clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis.  A member of the family Tenebrionidae, this species is one of the most conspicuous components of the Great Plains beetle fauna.  Adults are commonly encountered walking about the grasslands or crossing roads, especially after summer rains.  I recall my first encounter with this species when I made my first insect collecting trip to the Great Plains in 1986, marveling as I literally watched hundreds of individuals crossing a remote highway in southwestern Kansas.  Now, they were just an annoyance – close enough in size and appearance to the object of my search that I had to pause and look at each one I encountered to verify its identity.¹

¹ In fact, a mimetic association has been suggested for Amblycheila cylindriformis and Eleodes suturalis due to their similarity in size, shape and coloration (black with a reddish-brown sutural stripe) (Wrigley 2008).  This may be true, as Eleodes suturalis is an abundant species capable of defending itself with noxious sprays that contain benzoquinone and other hydrocarbons, while Amblycheila cylindriformis is a much rarer species (as mimics tend to be) that lacks defensive compounds.

After finding a few of the Amblycheila, I encountered this particular individual clinging to a root sticking out of the side of a wash.  My closer look caused it to immediately assume its characteristic defensive headstand pose (from which the name ‘clown beetle’ comes), so I decided to take a few photographs (not an easy task at night).  The photos have been sitting on my hard drive since, but in examining them more closely, I realized that this particular beetle is not E. suturalis.  Rather, it is one of several similar appearing species that co-occur with E. suturalis in the Great Plains and sometimes resemble it due to their large size, sulcate elytra, and occasional presence of a similar reddish-brown sutural stripe.  From these species, E. suturalis is at once distinguished by its broadly explanate (flanged) pronotum and laterally carinate, distinctly flattened elytra.  This individual clearly exhibits more rounded elytra and as best as I can tell keys to E. hispilabris – distinguished from E. acuta and E. obscurus by possessing a normal first tarsal segment (not thickened apically) on the foreleg (Bennett 2008).  Presumably this and the other related species of Eleodes also possess chemical defenses similar to E. suturalis – an example of Müllerian mimicry where multiple species exhibit similar warning coloration or behavior (in this case headstanding) along with genuine anti-predation attributes.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (1/4 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Post-processing: levels, unsharp mask, slight cropping.

REFERENCES:

Bernett, A. 2008. The genus Eleodes Eschscholtz (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae) of eastern Colorado. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 81(4):377–391.

Wrigley, R. A.  2008. Insect collecting in Mid-western USA, July 2007.  The Entomological Society of Manitoba Newsletter 35(2):5–9.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Oklahoma is for lovers

A few rather risqué photos from my June trip to northwestern Oklahoma.

Eleodes suturalis (family Tenebrionidae) - June 6, 2009 at Four Canyon Preserve, Ellis Co., Oklahoma

Eleodes suturalis (family Tenebrionidae) - June 6, 2009 at Four Canyon Preserve, Ellis Co., Oklahoma

Chrysobothris ignicollis (family Buprestidae) - June 6, 2009 at Four Canyon Preserve, Ellis Co., Oklahoma

Chrysobothris ignicollis (family Buprestidae) - June 6, 2009 at Four Canyon Preserve, Ellis Co., Oklahoma

Ellipsoptera nevadica knausii ("family" Cicindelidae) - June 12, 2009 at Salt Plain National Wildlife Refuge, Alfalfa Co., Oklahoma

Ellipsoptera nevadica knausii ("family" Cicindelidae) - June 12, 2009 at Salt Plain National Wildlife Refuge, Alfalfa Co., Oklahoma

Photo details:
Eleodes suturalis: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.
Chrysobothris ignicollis: Canon 65mm 1-5x macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/13, MT-24EX flash 1/8 power through diffuser caps.
Ellipsoptera nevadica knausii: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power through diffuser caps.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

“Armoured tank beetle”

anomalipus-elaphus1

Photo details: Panasonic DMC-FX3 (macro setting w/ auto exposure, aperature, and focus), illumination by two 23w compact fluorescent light bulbs. Post processing details: Adobe PhotoShop Elements 6.0 to crop, adjust brightness and contrast, remove pinhead, erase background, and sharpen.

In my last post, I briefly mentioned a beast of a beetle that we had given the nickname “armoured tank beetle.” Using (Picker et al. 2002), I determined this beetle to represent the species, Anomalipus elephas (family Tenebrionidae) – whose actual common name of “large armoured darkling beetle” was amazingly close to our made-up common name (not to mention the appropriateness of its specific epithet) – and linked to an online photograph of the species. As it turns out, the genus Anomalipus is quite large, with 51 species distributed throughout eastern and southern Africa – 34 of which have been recorded from South Africa proper (Iwan 2002). I’ve learned better than to ascribe species names to specimens in diverse groups of which I am not an expert based on a photograph of a common species, so for now this specimen will have to be called Anomalipus sp. Endrödy-Younga and Tschinkel (1993) report that all species in this genus are heavily built with strong legs, with most species being restricted within their geographical range to dense bush-covered patches of woody savanna.

After I wrote that post, I got to looking at the larger of my two specimens and thought, “Gee, I bet I could get a nice shot of that thing.” After all, it measures an impressive 32 mm in length (that’s 1¼ inches, folks!). Here is the result, and I have to admit I’m quite pleased given my equipment limitations (I only wish I’d thought to brush him off a little bit). This really has to be the most beautiful “big, black, ugly beetle” I’ve ever seen. I recall when I was pinning these two specimens that the exoskeleton was so hard I literally had to use my scissors to hammer the pin to get it going into the specimens. I like “armoured tank beetle” better.

In unrelated news, there are a couple of Carnivals everyone should be aware of – I’m doing my part to get the word out:

Circle of the Spineless – Ed Baker over at Invertebrate Diaries is set to host the next issue on March 2, 2009. There’s your deadline!

Linneaus Legacy – The January issue, hosted at Greg Laden’s Blog, was a good one.  Seeds Aside is hosting the February edition and is hoping to post it later this week if he gets enough submissions!  Go to this post for details on where to submit your post (or those from other blogs you enjoy).  EDIT: Too late – edition #16 is now posted.

REFERENCES:

Endrödy-Younga, S. and W. Tschinkel. 1993. Estimation of population size and dispersal in Anomalipus mastodon Fåhraeus, 1870 (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae: Platynotini). Annals of the Transvaal Museum 36(4):21-30.

Iwan, D. 2002. Catalogue of the World Platynotini (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae). Genus 13(2):219-323.

Picker, M., C. Griffiths and A. Weaving. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 444 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

Tempting tok-tokkies

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of the America’s greatest entomologists were coleopterists.  Army surgeons John L. LeConte and his protégé George W. Horn, California’s Henry C. Fall, Col. Thomas L. Casey (much maligned for his mihi itch¹ affliction, although in recent years regaining due respect for his insight on generic relationships), and “the Professor” Josef N. Knull, just to name a few.  What did these fine men have in common?  They studied beetles – not just tiger beetles or jewel beetles, but the entire order!  The world was much smaller then, and new information was generated at a much more leisurely pace.  Today such an approach is impossible.  With 300,000 described species in the order (conservatively) and growing, today’s students of Coleoptera must narrow their focus in one way or another – either by concentrating on one family or ecological guild, or by restricting their studies to a small geographic region.  I’ve tried, more or less successfully, to follow suite – jewel beetles are my primary focus, and I restrict my work with the ecologically similar longhorned beetles only to North American species.  Well, and I’m also working on tiger beetles, but only in Missouri… although I have begun taking fall tiger beetle trips to neighboring states.  Hmm, on second thought, I guess I haven’t been that successful at focusing (sigh! – and a likely explanation for my perpetual backlog of specimens unprocessed and papers unwritten).

¹In taxonomy, a term usually cast towards those who have a combination of disregard for quality over quantity when describing new taxa and a demonstrably high ego (Evenhuis 2008).

Whatever focus I do manage, it all goes out the window when I have the chance to collect in another country – especially someplace as exotic as Africa.  This is not a huge problem, as I can at least stay pretty much focused on just beetles.  Moths and butterflies are pretty, but it just takes too much effort to keep each specimen in good shape.  Bees and wasps also capture my interest, but I never know for sure whether I’ll get stung, and the extra precautions required to avoid such possibility are enough to make me pass on them.  Orthopterans don’t generally excite me unless they’re big and gaudy – in which case just one or two for the collection is fine.   And flies? Well, they’re flies! About the only non-coleopterans that regularly distract me are treehoppers – running into a mess of them, with their bizarre, fantastical shapes will always stop me in my tracks.  Fortunately, they’re not so abundant that they are constantly grabbing my attention.

Beetles, though – that’s a different story.  While I can resist the temptation to collect many of the groups outside of my sphere of interest, there are others that are consistently too tempting for me to pass up.  One of these is the Tenebrionidae, or darkling beetles.  With some 20,000 described species worldwide, it is among the most speciose of beetle families (larger than my beloved Buprestidae), and this diversity combines with difficult taxonomy to make them truly challenging for even the most serious students of the family.  For hacks like me, they’re impossible.  Moreover, they’re not even especialy pretty – usually just black.  Why do I collect them? Mostly because of their (in many cases) large size, comically awkward shuffling gait, and often exaggerated surface sculpturing.  Especialy diverse in more xeric habitats, I’ve collected quite a few in my frequent trips through the southwestern U.S. and even managed to get many of them identified by tenebrionid icon Charles A. Triplehorn.  Southern Africa is a true center of diversity for this group, with some 3,500 species recorded from the area – nearly 20% of the global diversity!  A number of particularly large species that go by the common name “tok-tokkies” make their homes in the dry Namib desert and surrounding bushveld.  Along with dungers and chafers and tyrant ground beetles, tok-tokkies would prove to be one more distraction in my nevertheless successful quest for African jewel beetles.

Psammodes hirtipes

Psammodes hirtipes

“Tok-tokkie” refers not to a particular genus or tribe of tenebrionids, but rather a number of flightless species that have developed a unique “tapping” method of communication between males and females.  The name “tok-tokkie” is onomatopoeic, referring to the sound these beetles make when they tap their abdomen on the ground.  In the same way that fireflies have species-specific patterns of flashes, different species of tok-tokkies tap with differing frequencies.  The beetle makes the noise by raising its abdomen and then bringing it down on the surface of the ground several times in quick succession.  Males initiate the tapping and await a response from a receptive female.  Signals are exchanged back and forth until, eventually, the two locate each other and mate.  Females lay eggs in shallow excavations in the dry, sandy soil, and the larvae that hatch feed within the soil on the roots of small plants. The dry Namib Desert has some of the most astounding species of tok-tokkies. Some – called “fog tok-tokkies” – have developed specially modified grooves to trap moisture from fog banks rolling onto the Atlantic coast. Others drink by doing a “head-stand” to allow condensed dew to trickle down to their mouths. Heat avoidance is another challenge in the Namib. Some species extrude dots of white wax from small pores on their elytra in response to increasing sunlight intensity, eventually appearing white-spotted or striped. The wax reflects the sun’s rays and helps keep the beetle cool. Other species beats the heat by running – in fact, the fastest running beetle in the world is one of the Namib tok-tokkies (and not, as I would have suspected, a tiger beetle). Unlike its mostly clumsy brethren around the rest of the world, this beetle blasts across the scorching sand at lighting speeds. A related species boasts the longest relative leg length of any beetle in the world.

Psammodes virago

Psammodes virago

I knew none of this in 1999 when I was in South Africa’s Northern (now Limpopo) Province, and while the tok-tokkies we encountered in the bushveld habitat below the Waterberg Range were not quite as marvelous as those of the nearby Namib Desert, they were still irresistible to this indefatigable beetle collector. Not knowing their names, we came up with our own names for them based on their appearance. Psammodes hirtipes was “wrinkle butt” due to the numerous prominent tubercles at the sides and rear of its otherwise smooth elytra. Psammodes virago, was “helmet beetle” because of its smoothly domed “army helmet” shape. Our designation of “armoured tank beetle” for Anomalipus elephas (photo credit) was amazingly close to its actual common name of “large armoured darkling beetle” (Picker et al. (2002), as was “white legs” for Dichtha incantatoris (photo credit), which Picker et al. (2002) call the “white-legged tok-tokkie”. In all, I collected some dozen species of tenebrionids during my stay at Geelhoutbos farm. Most of the smaller ones are still unidentified, but hopefully someday they will prove useful to some tenebrionid specialist.

The online magazine Travel Africa offers an informative article about the Namib tok-tokkies and this humerous video from National Geographic:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Namib beetles – Travel Africa Magazine“, posted with vodpod

REFERENCES:

Evenhuis, N. L. 2008. The “Mihi itch”—a brief history. Zootaxa, 1890:59-68.

Picker, M., C. Griffiths and A. Weaving. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, 444 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl