2014 Great Plains Collecting Trip iReport

During the past year or so I’ve followed up my longer (one week or more) insect collecting trips with a synoptic “iReport”—so named because they are illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs. It may come as a surprise to some, but iPhones actually take pretty good pictures (especially if you pay attention to their strengths and weaknesses), and their small, compact size makes it easy to take lots of photos while trying to use time in the field wisely. I find the iPhone to be a great tool for documenting the general flavor of a trip and for taking quick photos of subjects before getting out the big rig. I will, of course, feature photographs taken with the ‘real’ camera in future posts.

For this trip, I teamed up with Jeff Huether for the third time since 2012. Our quarry for this trip was longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) in the genus Prionus. Larvae of these beetles are subterranean, with some species feeding on roots of woody plants and others on roots of grasses and other herbaceous plants. Among the latter are an array of species occurring in the Great Plains, many of which have been very uncommonly collected. However, in recent years lures have been produced that are impregnated with prionic acid—the principal component of sex pheromones emitted by females in the genus. Originally produced for use in commercial orchards (which are sometimes attacked by P. laticollis in the east and P. californicus in the west), these lures are proving themselves to be useful for us taxonomist-types who wish to augment the limited amount of available material of other, non-economic species in the genus. While Prionus was our main goal, rest assured that I did not pass on the opportunity to find and photograph other beetles of interest.

I began the trip by driving from St. Louis to Wichita, Kansas to meet up with Jeff, who had flown there from his home in upstate New York. Our plan was to visit sites in southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico, where several of the Prionus spp. that we were looking for were known to occur. Before doing this, however, we stopped in Hardtner, Kansas to see “Beetle Bill” Smith and tour his amazing natural history tribute, Bill and Janet’s Nature Museum.

"Beetle" Bill Smith, founder of Bill & Janet's Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

“Beetle Bill” Smith, founder of Bill & Janet’s Nature Museum, Hardtner, Kansas.

After the tour (and a delicious lunch at his house of fried crappie prepared by his wife Janet), we headed west of town and then south just across the state line into Oklahoma to a spot where Bill had found a blister beetle (family Meloidae) that Jeff was interested in finding. During lunch I mentioned a jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) that I had looked for in the area several times, but which had so far eluded me—Buprestis confluenta. Emerald green with a dense splattering of bright yellow flecks on the elytra, it is one of North America’s most striking jewel beetles and is known to breed in the trunks of dead cottonwoods (Populus deltoides). Bill mentioned that he had collected this species at the very spot where we were going, and when we arrived I was enticed by the sight of a cottonwood grove containing several large, dead standing trunks—perfect for B. confluenta.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

Buprestis spp. love large, dead, barkless cottonwood trunks.

I searched for more than one hour without seeing the species, though I did find a few individuals of the related (and equally striking) B. rufipes on the trunks of the large, dead trees. Once that amount of time passes I’m no longer really expecting to see what I’m looking for, but suddenly there it was in all of its unmistakable glory! It would be the only individual seen despite another hour of searching, but it still felt good for the first beetle of the trip to be one I’d been looking for more than 30 years!

Buprestis (Knulliobuprestis) confluenta, on large, dead Populus deltoides trunk | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

Buprestis confluenta, on the trunk of a large, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) | Woods Col., Oklahoma| USA: Oklahoma

I usually wait until near the end of a collecting trip to take the requisite selfie, but on this trip I was sporting new headgear and anxious to document its maiden voyage. My previous headgear of choice, a vintage Mambosok (impossible to get now), finally disintegrated after 20 years of field use, and on the way out-of-town I picked up a genuine Buff® do-rag. I know many collectors prefer a brim, but I don’t like they way brims limit my field of vision or get in the way when I’m using a camera. Besides, I’m usually looking down on the ground or on vegetation, so sun on my face is not a big issue. And do I be stylin’ or wut?

A "selfie" makes the trip official.

A “selfie” makes the trip official.

We made it to our first locality in southeast Colorado by noon the next day—the vast, dry grasslands north of Las Animas. Jeff had collected a blister beetle of interest here on an earlier trip, but as I looked out across the desolate landscape I wondered what on Earth I could find here that would be even remotely interesting to me.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Shortgrass prairie habitat for Prionus integer.

Letting Jeff have some time to look for his blister beetle, I started down the roadside and after a short time found a live female Prionus sp. (later determined to represent P. integer). The only female Prionus I had ever collected before was P. heroicus, a giant species out in Arizona, and that was almost 30 years ago, so I wasn’t immediately sure what it was. Eventually I decided it must be Prionus, and a quick stop to kick the dirt while Jeff looked for his beetle turned into an intense search for more Prionus that surely were there. I did find two male carcasses shortly thereafter, and then nothing more was seen for the next hour or so.

Prionus integer male | Bent Co., Colorado

Prionus integer male (found dead) | Bent Co., Colorado

During the time that I was searching, however, I started noticing strange burrows in the ground. I excavated a few—they were shallow but contained nothing. Nevertheless, they matched the size of the beetles perfectly—surely there was a connection?

Prionus integer adult burrow.

Prionus integer adult burrow.

I wondered if Jeff knew about the beetles occurring here, but when I showed him what I had found the surprised look on his face told me this was not the case. I showed him the burrows, and we both agreed they had to be connected. I got the shovel out of the truck and walked back to the area where I had seen the live female, then sunk the shovel deep into the ground next to one of the burrows and pried up a chuck of the soil containing the burrow in its entirety. As we broke apart the soil another female was revealed, and we immediately decided to set out some traps baited with prionic acid lures. We expected the beetles to become active during dusk, so we went into town to get something to eat and then check out another nearby locality before returning to the site at dusk. While we were gone it rained heavily at the site, so we weren’t sure if or how this would affect beetle activity and their possible attraction to the traps. However, as we approached the site (slipping and sliding on the muddy 2-track), we could actually see beetles crawling on the road from afar. What we found when we got out of the car was nothing short of mind-blowing—the beetles were everywhere, crawling on the road, crawling through the grass, and overflowing in the flooded traps! The vast majority were males, as expected, but we also found a fair number of the much more rarely collected females. This was significant, as the chance to observe mating and oviposition behavior made the encounter far more informative than if we had only found and collected the much more numerous males.

Prionus integer mating pair.

Prionus integer mating pair.

The following day we headed south into northeastern New Mexico to look at some shortgrass prairie sites near Gladstone (Union Co.) where two species of Prionus had been collected in recent years: P. fissicornis (the lone member of the subgenus Antennalia) and P. emarginatus (one of eight species in the poorly known subgenus Homaesthesis, found primarily in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains). Fresh off of our experience the previous day, we were on the lookout for any suspicious looking “burrows” as we checked the roadsides at several spots in the area but found nothing, and while a few blister beetles piqued the interest of Jeff at one site, the complete absence of woody vegetation or flowering plants in general in the stark grassland landscape made the chances of me finding any other woodboring beetles remote. Eventually I became distracted by the lizards that darted through the vegetation around us, including this lesser earless lizard (Holbrookia maculata) and a collared lizard (better photos of both forthcoming).

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Holbrookia maculata (lesser earless lizard) | Union Co., New Mexico.

Despite no clues to suggest that Prionus beetles were active in the area, we set out some traps at two sites with soil exposures that seemed similar to those seen the day before. As Jeff set the last pair of traps in place, my distraction with saurian subjects continued with a dusty hognose snake (Heterodon nasicus gloydi). While photographing the animal I looked down to my side, and what did I see but a male Prionus fissicornis crawling through the vegetation! I called out to Jeff, and for the next half an hour or so we scoured the surrounding area in a failed attempt to find more. We would not be back until the next morning to check the traps, so our curiosity about how abundant the beetles might be would have to wait another 18 hours. We cast an eye towards the north and watched late afternoon thunderstorms roll across the expansive landscape and decided to check out the habitat in nearby Mills Rim.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

Thunderstorms over shortgrass prairie.

The rocky terrain with oak/pine/juniper woodlands at Mills Rim was a dramatic contrast to the gently rolling grasslands of the surrounding areas. We came here mostly out of curiosity, without any specific goal, but almost immediately after getting out of the car a huge Prionus male flew up to us—almost surely attracted by the scent of the lures we were carrying. Within a few minutes another male flew in, and then another. Because of their huge size and occurrence within oak woodland habitat, we concluded they must represent P. heroicus, more commonly encountered in the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona. We stuck around to collect a few more, but as dusk approached we returned to the surrounding grasslands to set out some lures to see if we could attract other Prionus species. The frontal system that had waved across the landscape during the afternoon had left in its wake textured layers of clouds, producing spectacular colors as the sun sank inexorably below the horizon.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

Sunset over shortgrass prairie.

This attempt to collect grassland Prionus beetles would not be successful, and as dusk progressed we became distracted collecting cactus beetles (Moneilema sp., family Cerambycidae) from prickly pear cactus plants (Opuntia sp.) before darkness ended our day’s efforts. This did not mean, however, that all of our efforts were done—there are still night active insects, and in the Great Plains what better nocturnal insect to look for than North America’s largest tiger beetle, the Great Plains giant tiger beetle (Amblycheila cylindriformis, family Cicindelidae—or subfamily Cicindelinae—or supertribe Cicindelitae, depending on who you talk to)?! We kept our eyes on the headlamp illuminated 2-track as we drove back to the highway and then turned down another road that led into promising looking habitat. Within a half-mile of the highway we saw one, so I got out to pick it up and then started walking. I walked another half-mile or so on the road but didn’t see anything except a few Eleodes darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae), then turned around and walked the habitat alongside the road on the way back. As I walked, tiny little rodents—looking like a cross between a mouse and a vole—flashed in and out of my headlight beam as they hopped and scurried through the vegetation in front of me. Most fled frantically in response to my attempted approach, but one, for some reason, froze long enough under my lamp to allow me this one photo. When I posted the photo on my Facebook page, opinions on its identity ranged from kangaroo rat (Dipodomys sp.) silky pocket mouse (Perognathus flavus) to jumping mouse (Zapus sp.). Beats me.

silky pocket mouse? Zapus sp., jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Kangaroo rat? Silky pocket mouse? Jumping mouse? | Union Co., New Mexico.

Almost as if by command, it rained during the early evening hours where we had set the traps, and the following morning we were rewarded with traps brimming with Prionus fissicornis males. Not only were the traps full, but males were still running around in the vicinity, and we even found a few females, one of which was in the act of ovipositing into the soil at the base of a plant.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionic acid-bated traps w/ Prionus fissicornis males.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis male | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Prionus fissicornis oviposition hole.

Eventually P. fissicornis activity subsided, and we decided to go back to the area around Mills Rim to see what beetles we might find in the woodland habitats. We also still were not sure about the Prionus beetles we had collected there the previous day and whether they truly represented P. heroicus. The scrubby oaks and conifers screamed “Beat me!”, and doing so proved extraordinarily productive, with at least a half-dozen species of jewel beetles collected—including a nice series of a rather large Chrysobothris sp. from the oaks that I do not recognize and a single specimen of the uncommonly collected Phaenops piniedulis off of the pines.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Oak/juniper woodland at Mills Canyon, habitat for Prionus heroicus.

Not only is the scenery at Mills Rim Campground beyond spectacular, it also boasts some of the most adoringly cute reptiles known to man—such as this delightfully spiky horned lizard (I prefer the more colloquial name “horny toad”!). I’m probably going to regret not having photographed this fine specimen with the big camera.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Phrynosoma cornutum (Texas horned lizard) | Harding Co., New Mexico.

Fresh diggings beside a rock always invite a peek inside. You never know who might be peeking out.

Who's home?

Who’s home?

Peek-a-boo!

Peek-a-boo!

The trip having reached the halfway point, we debated whether to continue further south to the sand dunes of southern New Mexico (with its consequential solid two-day drive back to Wichita) or turn back north and have the ability to collect our way back. We chose the latter, primarily because we had not yet had a chance to explore the area around Vogel Canyon south of Las Animas, Colorado. We had actually planned to visit this area on the day we encountered P. integer in the shortgrass prairie north of town, and a quick visit before going back to check the traps that evening showed that the area had apparently experienced good rains as shown by the cholla cactus (Cylindropuntia imbricata) in full bloom.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Cylindropuntia imbricata | Otero Co., Colorado.

Whenever I see cholla plants I can’t help myself—I have to look for cactus beetles (Moneilema spp.). It had rained even more since our previous visit a few days ago, and accordingly insects were much more abundant. Several Moneilema adults were seen on the cholla, one of which I spent a good bit of time photographing. The iPhone photo below is just a preview of the photos I got with the big camera (which also included some very impressive-sized cicadas—both singing males and ovipositing females). The cactus spines impaled in the camera’s flash control unit serve as a fitting testament to the hazards of photographing cactus insects!

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

Moneilema sp. on Cylindropuntia imbracata } Otero Co., Colorado.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

The hazards of photographing cactus beetles.

Later in the afternoon we hiked down into the canyon itself, and while insects were active we didn’t find much out of the ordinary. We did observe some petroglyphs on the sandstone walls of the canyon dating from the 1200s to the 1700s—all, sadly, defaced by vandals. Despite the rather uninspiring collecting, we stayed in the area for two reasons: 1) Jeff wanted to setup blacklights at the canyon head in hopes of collecting a blister beetle that had been caught there on an earlier trip, and 2) I had noted numerous Amblycheila larval burrows in the area (and even fished out a very large larva from one of them) and wanted to search the area at night to see if I could find adults. Jeff was not successful in his goal, and for a time I thought I would also not succeed in mine until we closed up shop and started driving the road out of the canyon. By then it was after 11 p.m. and we managed to find about a half-dozen A. cylindriformis adults. This was now the third time that I’ve found adults of this species, and interestingly all three times I’ve not seen any beetles despite intense searching until after 11 p.m and up until around midnight.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

Lithographs on canyon wall | Mills Canyon, Colorado.

The next morning we found ourselves with two days left in the trip but several hundred miles west of Wichita, where I needed to drop Jeff off for his flight back home before I continued on home to St. Louis. I had hoped we could make it to the Glass Mountains just east of the Oklahoma panhandle to see what Prionus species might be living in the shortgrass prairies there (and also to show Jeff this remarkable place where I’ve found several new state records over the past few years). As we headed in that direction, I realized our path would take us near Black Mesa at the western tip of the Oklahoma pandhandle, and having been skunked on my first visit to the area last year due to dry conditions but nevertheless intrigued by its very un-Oklahoma terrain and habitat I suggested we stop by the area and have a look around before continuing on to the Glass Mountains. We arrived in the area mid-afternoon and headed straight for a rock outcropping colonized by scrub oak (Quercus sp.) and pinyon pine (Pinus sp.)—very unusual for western Oklahoma—that I had found during my previous trip.

The author looks pensively out over the Black Mesa landscape.

The area around Black Mesa couldn’t be more unlike the perception that most people have of Oklahoma.

I wanted to beat the oaks for buprestids—surely there would be a state record or two just sitting there waiting for me to find them, but as I started walking from the car towards the oaks the approach of a loud buzz caught my attention. I turned around to see—would you believe—a large Prionus beetle circling the air around me and was fortunate to net it despite its fast and agile flight. I hurried back to the car to show Jeff what I had found; we looked at each other and said, “Let’s collect here for a while.” The beetle had apparently been attracted to the lures in the car, so we got them out, set them up with some traps, and went about beating the oaks and watching for beetles to fly to the lure. Sadly, no  jewel beetles were collected on the oaks, although I did find evidence of their larval workings in some dead branches (which were promptly collected for rearing). Every once in a while, however, a Prionus beetle would fly in, apparently attracted to the lure but, curiously, never flying directly to it and falling into the trap. Many times they would land nearby and crawl through the vegetation as if searching but never actually find the trap. However, just as often they would approach the trap in flight and not land, but rather continue circling around in the air for a short time and before suddenly turning and flying away (forcing me to watch forlornly as they disappeared in the distance). Based on their very large size, blackish coloration and broad pronotum, we surmised (and later confirmed) these must also be P. heroicus, despite thinking (and later confirming) that the species was not known as far east as Oklahoma. Not only had we found a new state record, but we had also recorded a significant eastern range extension for the species. And to think that we only came to Black Mesa because I wanted to beat the oaks!

Prionus heroicus male

Prionus heroicus male

Bite from Prionus heroicus male.

Proof that Prionus heroicus males can bite hard enough to draw blood!

We each collected a nice series of the beetles, and despite never witnessing the beetles actually going to the traps a few more were found in the traps the next morning after spending the night in a local bed & breakfast. I also found a dove’s nest with two eggs hidden in the vegetation, and as we were arranging for our room at the bed & breakfast a fellow drove up and dropped off a freshly quarried dinosaur footprint (the sandstone, mudstone, and shale deposits around Black Mesa are the same dinosaur fossil bearing deposits made more famous at places like Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument).

Dove's nest w/ eggs.

Dove’s nest w/ eggs.

Dinosaur fossil footprint

Freshly quarried dinosaur fossil footprint

By the way, if you ever visit the area, the Hitching Post at Black Mesa is a great place to stay. A longhorn skull on the barn above an authentic 1882 stagecoach give a hint at the ambiance, and breakfast was almost as good as what my wife Lynne can do (almost! 🙂 ).

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

Longhorn skull on barn at our Bead and Breakfast.

132-year-old stagecoach - model!

132-year-old stagecoach – model!

After breakfast we contemplated the long drive that lay between us and our arrival in Wichita that evening—our longer than expected stay in the area had virtually eliminated the possibility to collect in the Glass Mountains. Nevertheless, there was one more thing that I wanted to see before we left—the dinosaur footprints laying in a trackway along Carrizo Creek north of the mesa. I only knew they were in the area based on a note on a map, but as there were no signs our attempt to find them the previous day was not successful. Armed with detailed directions from the B&B owners, however, we decided to give it one more shot. Again, even after we found the site I didn’t see them immediately, I suppose because I was expecting to see distinct depressions in dry, solid rock. Only after the reflections of light from an alternating series of small puddles—each measuring a good 10–12″ in diameter—did I realize we had found them. Recent rains had left the normally dry creek bed filled with mud, with the footprints themselves still filled with water.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

It is not surprising that I would be so excited to find the tracks, but what did surprise me was the effect they had on me. Seeing the actual signs of near mythical beasts that lived an incomprehensible 100 million years ago invites contemplation and reminds us that our time here on Earth has, indeed, been short!

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

Dinosaur tracks | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma.

By this time, we had no choice but to succumb to the long drive ahead. We did manage to carve out a short stop at the very first locality of the trip in an effort to find more Buprestis confluens (finding only a few more B. rufipes), but otherwise the day was spent adhering to our goal of reaching Wichita before nightfall. Jeff was home and sipping tea before lunchtime the next day, while I endured one more solid day of driving before making it back to St. Louis in time for dinner with the family. At that point, the trip already could have been considered a success, but how successful it ultimately ends up being depends on what beetles emerge during the next season or two from these batches of infested wood that I collected at the various spots we visited.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

Wood collected for rearing wood-boring beetles.

If you like this Collecting Trip iReport, you might also like the iReports that I posted for my 2013 Oklahoma and 2013 Great Basin collecting trips as well.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Guest Blogger: Dogbane for Dinner

Our guest blogger for today is Anne McCormack. I have known Anne (or known of her) for more than 25 years now, first as a long-time editor of Nature Notes, the journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society, and more recently on a personal basis as I, myself, have followed in her editorial footsteps. Anne is an astute naturalist whose breadth of knowledge spans not only botany but also entomology and ornithology, all of which she write about in her own blog at Gardening with Binoculars.


I planted Common Dogbane (Apocynum cannibinum) because some of my butterfly-watching friends reported numbers of juniper hairstreak butterflies on the patch of dogbane at Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood. I assumed incorrectly that dogbane was a host plant for hairstreaks, and believing it to be little more than caterpillar food, I placed it in a hot, dry, narrow strip along the driveway. Ragged, caterpillar-chewed leaves wouldn’t be noticed there, and I forgot about it. After a few seasons, it was still a modest-sized clump, but the leaves were in great shape. In fact, it had grown into an attractive bush of airy, elegant lime-green foliage, wine-red stems, and tiny white flowers. It’s quite a contrast to its relative, Common Milkweed, growing next to it, which looks as if it were designed by Dr. Seuss—even before it gets chewed to bits. At this point I decided it was time to look it up and see why it had failed to support hordes of munching caterpillars. As you have already guessed, gentle reader, the Juniper Hairstreak’s host plant is juniper, not dogbane, but good old Common Dogbane is a great nectar plant. Now that Dogbane and I understand each other better, I can appreciate the amount of traffic its tiny white blooms bring in, like this Peck’s Skipper butterfly. Ants, butterflies, tiny native bees, honeybees, and this mason wasp are busy there all day long.

Along with several species of moth, it is the host plant for the Dogbane Beetle, which spends its larval stage devouring the roots and its adulthood dining on the leaves of Dogbane, and nothing but Dogbane. Dogbane Beetle can be confused with Japanese Beetle by beginners like myself, but unlike its fellow Coleopteran, Dogbane Beetle is harmless. That makes its iridescence all the more gorgeous, as shown in this wonderful photo by Courtnay Janiak. It’s a native insect that has shared a long evolutionary history with this under-appreciated native plant. American Indians valued it for its bark, which is tough but peels off in long strips. They plaited it for bowstrings and anything that called for twine; hence, its other common name, Indian Hemp. Don and Lillian Stokes, in their 2002 PBS show about bird watching, demonstrated how birds seek out the dry stems of this perennial, pulling off strips for nests in early spring. Nesting material can be hard to come by for birds in the tidy suburbs, so I don’t clean up the stems after frost. “Bane” in the name refers to the toxin cymarin in the plant’s leaves, though the plant would have to be covered in braunschweiger before my dog would be interested. Edgar Denison, in Missouri Wildflowers, translates the genus name Apocynum as “away dog.” The species name cannibinum refers to hemp. Its seedpods remind me of French green beans. These split at the end of the season, and the seeds fly away on fibers similar to milkweed seeds. Collect some and try this plant in your butterfly or native plant garden. Give it a spot where it’s easy to watch the colorful visitors.

Dogbane beetle (Chrysochus auratus) - Copyright © Courtnay Janiak

Copyright © Anne McCormack 2010

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Bicycle ride around Lake Tahoe

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Perhaps some of you have by now deduced that, in addition to insects and natural history, I have a second passion – cycling! In fact, I raced bikes competitively as an amateur for seven years (going by the local nickname “BugMan“) before hanging it up at the end of 2008.  However, even though I’m not racing anymore, I still ride as much as ever, only now it’s purely for the fun of it!  I’m a dedicated roadie, riding year-round and averaging around 5,000-6,000 miles a year.  I love the speed and the smoothness of the road and the opportunity it provides to cover long distances and enjoy the sights (not to mention the resulting freedom to eat like a horse and stay relatively trim!).

One of my most memorable cycling experiences was in 1995, when I joined a group that rode the entire circuit around Lake Tahoe.  I was living in Sacramento at the time and was a relative newbie – the 72-mile ride with 3,500 feet of climbing at elevations ranging from 6,200 feet at lake level to more than 7,000 feet near Carson Pass was without question the most difficult ride I had ever attempted at that point.  Now, as a seasoned ex-racer, such a ride is not extraordinarily difficult for me – in fact, I do rides in the 60-80 mile range with as much climbing or more almost every weekend.  Still, my memories of the challenge and the unbelievable scenery have kept that ride high in the ranks of my most epic, and since we began going back to Lake Tahoe two spring ago I’ve wanted to do it again.  It would not have been possible during our first trip back, as the roads still had quite a bit of snow on them; however, last year the roads were clean and dry, and I resolved to bring my bike with me on this year’s trip in the event that such was again the case.  Madonna del Ghisallo (patron saint of cycling) must have been smiling down upon me, because this year the roads were again in beautiful condition, despite the amount of snow blanketing the surrounding landscapes.  It made for one of the most beautiful bike rides I have ever done in my life.

There was a comforting familiarity to the ride, despite the 15 years since the last – the stunning landscape that I have come to cherish so dearly, the massively shaded solitude of the west shore, lunching on California cuisine in a quaint village along the north shore, and the long climbs and screaming descents through open Jeffrey pine forests along the east shore.  It was also different – I was by myself, yet despite that I was stronger and briming with confidence; not only a seasoned cyclist, but also much more knowledgeable of and closely attuned to the natural history of the area.  I didn’t fear the climbing, I relished it!  I didn’t overcome the challenge, I enjoyed it!  I stopped at a few places to take photographs (taken with my small point-and-shoot, for obvious reasons) and share some of them here – I hope they give you a tiny taste of the flavor of that day.

Near the summit of Emerald Bay Pass, looking back at Mt. Tallac.

High point on Emerald Bay Pass.

The descent to Eagle Falls at Emerald Bay.

 This is an avalanche zone (note deep snow deposits on steep slopes on left side – these extend high up the mountain here).  Moments after taking this photo, an avalanche fell onto the road right as I was descending by this spot. At ~35 mph there was no stopping – I rode right through it as the initial snow drop hit the pavement and then watched in amazement as the main drop dumped onto the road behind me.  It was not big enough to bury anything, but I surely would have crashed had I gotten there just a moment or two later!

Overlooking Emerald Bay from Emerald Bay Pass.

Emerald Bay is a glacial scour formed during the last glacial period ending only 10,000 years ago. Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe’s only island, is thought to be a resistant rib of granite rock that was overridden by the glacial ice. Lateral glacial morraines enclose each side of the bay, and an incomplete terminal morraine connects Emerald Bay to the main lake. Last year, I stood atop the outermost rock of the left side of the terminal morraine and took photographs looking back in this direction

Grove of sugar pines at D. L. Bliss State Park.

Sugar pine, Pinus lambertiana, is among my favorite of all pines.  More common on the west shore due to their preference for higher levels of moisture, their towering, ragged, asymmetrical crowns with long, pendulous cones (usually a foot or more in length) hanging from the branch tips are immediately recognizable from afar.  These majestic trees are the world’s tallest pine and bear the longest cones in the genus; they stand in defiant contrast to the uniformly symmetrical crowns of the more common Jeffrey pines (Pinus jeffreyi) and white firs (Abies concolor) that surrounded them.  For a more thorough treatment of the trees of Lake Tahoe, please visit my three-part series covering the pines, the “other” conifers, and the deciduous trees.

Some might think it was still a little too early in the season for bike riding.

Looking west across Lake Tahoe from Logan Shoals Overlook.

The east shore in Nevada is decidedly drier than California’s west shore.  The forest on the Nevada side is a more open, fire-mediated landscape dominated by Jeffrey pine, as opposed to the denser forests on the west shore with higher incidence of shade-tolerant trees such as white fir and incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens).

View of Cave Rock (left center) from Logan Shoals Overlook.

Cave Rock was and still is a sacred place for people of the Washoe tribe, whose ancestors occupied Lake Tahoe during the summers and performed religious ceremonies inside the largest of its caves.  These caves, sitting several hundred feet above the current lake level, were carved by wave action shortly after Lake Tahoe’s formation nearly 3 million years ago when lake levels were much higher than they are today.  The first of two highway tunnels was blasted through the rock in 1931 (much to the dismay of the Washoes), and the second was added in 1957.

Looking north along Lake Tahoe's east shore from atop Logan Shoals Overlook.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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North America’s largest jewel beetle

Euchroma gigantea in Jamaica. Photo © Steve Meyer


In recent weeks I’ve featured a few jewel beetles that I have encountered amongst specimens sent to me for identification (see “Aaack!-maeodera” and “Acmaeodera carlota in northern Arizona“).  While the new distributions and even unknown species that they represent are fascinating from a scientific perspective, their diminutive size (~6 mm in length) probably makes them less than spectacular to the non-specialist.  The family Buprestidae does, however, contain some very large species, including a few that qualify as bona fide giants.  One such species, Euchroma gigantea (Giant Metallic Ceiba Borer Beetle), occurs from Mexico through Central America, the West Indies, and most of South America.  At a maximum of 65mm in length, it is not only North America’s largest jewel beetle, but also the largest jewel beetle in the entire Western Hemisphere.

My colleague Steve Meyer encountered and photographed this individual in Negril, Jamaica.  Although its scientific name translates to “colorful giant”, the beetle in the photo is especially so due to the delicate, waxy bloom covering its elytra. This bloom is secreted by the adult after transforming from the pupa and prior to emerging from its larval host, giving it a bright yellow-green appearance.  After the beetle emerges and becomes active, the bloom is quickly rubbed off and the beetle takes on the shiny, iridescent purple-green color by which it is more familiar.  The presence of bloom on this individual suggests that it had just emerged from the trunk of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) on which it was sitting.  Kapok and other large trees in the family Bombacaceae serve as hosts for larval development for this species (Hespenheide 1983).

Indigenous peoples in Central and South America have long utilized the dazzlingly colored elytra of these beetles to create beautiful natural jewelry and adorn their clothes and textiles.  The species is also eaten in both the larval and adult stages – Tzeltal-Mayans in southern Mexico (Chiapas) roast the adults when available, and the Tukanoans (northwestern Amazon) also eat the larvae (Dufour 1987). I have eaten a few insects in my day, but none as thick and massively juicy as the grub of this species must be. Holometabolous larvae typically contain a rather high percentage of fat (up to 66% dry weight) to meet the demands of pupal development and adult reproduction, and I suspect this makes the larvae quite tasty (especially when roasted). If there is any insect in the world that I really, really, really want to eat – it is the larva of this one!

REFERENCES:

Dufour, D. L.  1987.  Insects as food:  A case study from the northwest Amazon.  American Anthropologist 89(2):383–397.

Hespenheide, H. A.  1983.  Euchroma gigantea (Eucroma, giant metallic ceiba borer), p. 719.  In: D. H. Janzen [ed.], Costa Rican Natural History, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

Osage copperhead

Copperhead

While photographing Cicindela sexguttata last weekend, Chris and I encountered this young copperhead snake (Agkistrodon contortrix).  It was the second copperhead I had seen in as many days – unusual, since I can count on my two hands the number of copperheads I’ve encountered in my many years of tramping through Missouri’s woodlands.  I did not even see my first copperhead (other than in the zoo) until early adulthood, one of many unfortunate consequences of my strictly urban childhood (more on that first encounter later).

Copperhead

Missouri copperheads don’t really have “copper heads” – the common name is derived from the northern subspecies that lives in the northeastern U.S. and down into Appalachia.  Instead, most of Missouri’s copperheads have a pinkish tan head that matches the color of the body.  Three of North America’s five copperhead subspecies live in Missouri, but it is the Osage copperhead (A. contortrix phaeogaster) that is most commonly encountered – the northern and southern subspecies being confined, respectively, to the extreme northern and southern portions of the state.  Osage copperheads are distinguished by the light bordering around each of their dark markings.

Copperhead

This individual can be recognized as a juvenile not only by its small size (it was just over 1 foot long), but also by the greenish yellow tail with small, white markings edged in black.  Juvenile copperheads need help capturing prey because of their small size and use their colorful tails for “caudal-luring” – that is, they use their tails to lure prey to within striking distance.  When prey approaches, the coiled juvenile snake moves its tail near the center of the coil and wiggles the colored portion – perhaps it looks like a caterpillar to the lizard or frog.  Copperheads lose their juvenile tail coloration at about 18 months to two years of age when they are large enough to capture prey without assistance.

Copperheads are famously non-aggressive – even though the majority of snake bites that occur in Missouri each year are from this snake (due to its abundance), nearly all are a result of human attempts to handle, capture, or (tragically) kill the snake.  I suppose someone might accuse me of doing likewise, since I used a stick to pick this individual up from the leaf litter in which it was lying, brilliantly camoflauged, and lay it down on the trail for photographs.  The snake did strike several times at the stick, but with my hand safely out of reach, and after it was in place it cooperated fully for these ever closer photographs.  My first encounter with a copperhead, however, was not so uneventful.  I was a budding entomologist fresh out of school and had just discovered the wonderful little herbaceous islands in the forest known as glades.  On my way back to St. Louis from a meeting in Jefferson City, I stopped by Graham Cave State Park in Montgomery Co. – a park I had not yet explored.  Of course, there’s a cave that one must see – in this case an unusual sandstone overhang cave (significant for its Native American artifacts dating back 10,000 years).  On top of the broad, sandstone arch above the cave I noticed a little glade habitat and clambered up to take a peek.  As I was standing atop the cave looking at the glade, I felt something hit my ankle.  I looked down and saw a full-grown copperhead coiled right next to my foot and instinctively jumped up and away from the snake (and fortunately not over the edge of the cave top).  Almost immediately, my leg started feeling tingly, and as I pulled up my pant leg, pushed down my sock, and began searching frantically for the wounds on my ankle my leg started going completely numb.  I was 40 miles from the nearest hospital, alone, and had not the wisdom to know that no fatalities from the bite of any of Missouri’s venomous snakes have been recorded for many decades.   Convinced I was going to die, I continued my frantic search for the wounds, but no amount of careful examination around the ankle revealed any broken skin (what I would have done had I actually found wounds I do not know).  I got up and tried to walk, almost collapsing at first on the completely numb leg.  Eventually I was able to walk some feeling back into the leg, and once the leg was feeling close to normal again I concluded that the numbness must have been a purely psychosomatic response to the perceived bite.  I went back to the snake, still coiled up where I first encountered it, and admired it for awhile – with due respect!

An excellent article on Missouri copperheads, by Missouri Department of Conservation herpetologist Tom R. Johnson, appeared in the May 1999 issue of The Missouri Conservationist.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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A festive (tiger beetle) birthday

Last Thursday was my birthday, and as has become my custom, I took the day off and went on my ‘Annual Season Opening Birthday Bug Collecting Trip.’  One or two of you might remember how these plans were scrubbed last year by a last minute business trip, during which I discovered Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota. That experience – and the post that I wrote about it – remain high among my all-time favorites. Despite that, nothing was going to derail my plans to go collecting this year, and at 5:30 in the morning I awoke to begin what would turn out to be as enjoyable and successful a day as I could hope for. I had convinced my colleagues and long-time collecting buddies Rich Thoma and Chris Brown to take the day off as well and accompany me down to the lowlands of southeastern Missouri to search for additional localities of the festive tiger beetle – Cicindela scutellaris.

Records of Cicindela scutellaris in southeast Missouri

Records of Cicindela scutellaris in southeast Missouri

As far as is currently known – C. scutellaris is represented in Missouri by three highly disjuct populations in the extreme northwestern, northeastern, and southeastern corners of the state.  The two northern populations are unambigously assignable to the northern subspecies lecontei, although their absence from areas further south in Missouri along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers remains a mystery.  The southeastern population apparently represents an intergrade population with influences from both lecontei and the southeastern subspecies unicolor.  While this population was discovered many years ago (I first collected it in the mid-1980s), it remained known only from sand forests in Holly Ridge Conservation Area on Crowley’s Ridge.  A second population was discovered several years ago on sand exposures in the extreme western lowlands near the Ozark Escarpment when Chris Brown and I began our formal survey of tiger beetles in Missouri, and last year I succeeded in locating several populations of the beetle in the critically imperiled sand prairie relicts located along the spine of the Sikeston Sand Ridge.

cicindela_scutellaris_p1020910_2This year, we wanted to determine if intergrade populations also occurred on the Malden Sand Ridge – the southernmost expanse of sand exposures in the southeastern lowlands.  We didn’t know if they did – presettlement sand prairies were less abundant on the Malden Ridge due to its higher soil organic content.  As a result, no sand prairie relicts survived the Malden Ridge’s complete conversion to agriculture.  Undeterred, I got onto Google Maps and scoured satellite imagery of the ridge and located several spots that seemed to have potential – even though they were agricultural fields, they appeared to be of sufficient expanse and with enough sand to possibly support populations of the beetle.

So, on the morning of April 23, my ‘Annual Birthday Season Opening Bug Collecting Trip’ began by meeting up with Rich and Chris and driving the 223 miles from Wildwood to Kennett to explore several locations for a beetle based only on the suggestion of a flickering computer screen.  The first of these locations was a bust – there was a house constructed right in the middle of the site that wasn’t on the Google Map.  cicindela_scutellaris_p1020889_2Maybe the beetle occurred here and maybe it didn’t, but the last thing I wanted to do on a Thursday morning was interrupt a homeowner from their morning routine and ask them if we could collect bugs in their front yard.  Besides, there was another locality just a couple miles up the road that looked equally promising.  We found the spot and drove by slowly – it was an agricultural field that looked like it had been fallow for at least a short time, and although it did not look great (not as much sand as I had hoped) we eventually decided that since we were there we might as well take a look.  It wasn’t long before we saw an individual near the highest part of the field, and through a couple hours of exploring and digging adult burrows we had observed a limited number of adults.  Success!  The landowner happened by while we were there and graciously allowed us to continue our searches.  Through her, we learned that the field had been under soybean cultivation during the previous season.  This was good news to learn that beetles were inhabiting sand exposures on the Malden Ridge despite its complete conversion to agriculture.

Having confirmed the occurrence of C. scutellaris on the Malden Ridge, we then began driving to the next putative locality some miles north along the ridge.  Along the way, Chris spotted a rather large sand expanse in another agricultural field right next to the highway.  cicindela_scutellaris_p1020906_2Even though I hadn’t detected it in my Google Map search, it looked promising enough to explore, and so we did a quick U-turn and found a place to pull over.  This spot can only be described as the ‘festive tiger beetle motherlode’ of southeast Missouri!  Even though the field was obviously under active agricultural use, the beetles were abundant within the fairly large expanse of exposed sand within the field (photo below).  We were quickly able to collect a sufficient series to document the beetle’s range of variation and set about obtaining additional photographs.  I felt fortunate to be able to photograph this mating pair, which nicely illustrates the white labrum of the male (top) versus the dark labrum of the female (bottom) – one character that distinguishes this intergrade population from the similar-appearing six-spotted tiger beetle (C. sexguttata – commonly encountered along woodland trails throughout the eastern U.S., and with both sexes exhibiting a white labrum).  Note also how the male is holding his legs out horizontally (a behavior I’ve seen with other mating pairs) and the more heavily padded tarsi on his front legs. The latter specialization is thought to aid in grasping and holding the female (Pearson et al. 2006), although in this instance it clearly is not serving that function, but I have not yet determined for what purpose the horizontal posturing of the front legs is all about (perhaps it is related to alarm behavior).

cicindela_scutellaris_habitat_p1020899_2We completed the day by documenting the occurrence of this species on the third of only three sizeable sand prairie relicts that remain on the Sikeston Sand Ridge – a private parcel located a few miles south of the other two preserves.  These observations have increased our confidence that C. scutellaris is secure in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands, and that – thankfully – no special conservation measures will be required at this time to assure its continued existence.  We also now have enough material on hand to characterize the range of variation exhibited by individuals across this population.  We hope this will allow a greater understanding of the relative influence of lecontei populations to the north versus unicolor populations to the south in contributing to the makeup of this population.

Since it was my birthday, it was appropriate that I should discover this “gift” next to the rim of my net after I slapped it over a mating pair of beetles.  I haven’t found a large number of Native American artifacts during my time in the field, but this has to be most impressive of those that I have found – it is in almost perfect condition, with only the smallest of chips off of one of the lower corners.  Edit 5/5/09: After a little research, I believe this to be a spear point from the Archaic period (12,000 to 2,500 years ago).

arrowhead_p1020900_2

p.s. – my 100th post!

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 2009

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Magodo – giant twig wilter

petascelis-remipes

In previous posts, I have highlighted some of the insects I observed on a trip to South Africa in November-December 1999.  All of the photos I have shown to this point were taken at Borakalalo National Park in North West Province or at the Geelhoutbos farm of Susan Strauss below the Waterberg Range in the formerly Northern, now Limpopo Province.  Both of these locations are deep inside the bushveld, providing ample opportunity to observe an incredible diversity of insect life.  This is not to say that insects, even spectacular ones, cannot be found in more urban areas.  During the weekend between those two mini-expeditions, I stayed with my friend and colleague, Chuck Bellamy, at his home in Pretoria, a beautiful city with lovely architecture, elegant gardens… and some very impressive bugs!  The bug in this photo was found on a tree in a shrubby enclave, and at well over 35 mm in length it is easily the largest leaf-footed bug (order Hemiptera, family Coreidae) that I have ever seen.  Its chunky build, velvety black coloration with thin yellow lines along the sides and down the center of the thorax, and greatly enlarged hind femora quickly led me to a provisional identification of a male Petascelis remipes, or giant twig wilter.  This ID was confirmed by my friend and colleague Harry Brailovsky, an entomologist at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and world expert on Coreidae (and who, incidentally, just recently published a review of this Afrotropical genus – Brailovsky 2008).

According to Picker et al. (2002), these insects are found on plants in the genus Combretum.  Like most species in the family, they have scent (“stink”) glands that provide defensive capabilities. Adults are gregarious and bold, walking towards intruders with antennae vibrating when disturbed, and they are apparently capable of squirting their defensive secretions for some distance.  The nymphs are black as well but futher advertise their noxiousness with warning coloration of red spots on a whitish background. Interestingly, and despite their powerful chemical defenses, this species is considered a delicacy in parts of Mozambique where it is known as Magodo.  In a post called Insects for Dinner (in a blog with the eerily similar title, Beating about the Bush), Bart Wursten of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique describes how local folk burn small patches of the grassland in which these insects are found to smoke them out and catch them.  The Magodo hunters kill the bugs by breaking off the head and removing the scent glands, which releases a very strong almond-like smell.  In doing this, the locals are able to catch considerable quantities of the bugs, which they eat with supper.

Lest you believe such practices are an anomaly, van Huis (2003) has compiled a list of about 250 insect species used as food in sub-Saharan Africa.  Lepidoptera, Orthoptera and Coleoptera represented the bulk (78%) of species eaten, with Isoptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera and Odonota making up the rest.  Several examples of toxic insects and the traditional methods used to remove the poisons were given.  It was noted that whether or not insects are eaten depends not only on taste and nutritional value, but also on customs and ethnic preferences or prohibitions.  I’m not one to shy away from the thought of eating insects – after all, shrimp are just bugs that live in water, and insects rank far lower in ‘slime factor’ than many other invertebrates (e.g., oysters) that enjoy great popularity in our culture.  I’ve eaten roasted beet armyworm (Spodoptera exigua) pupae and munched on chocolate covered ants, but that’s kid stuff – the armyworms tasted like the soy sauce in which they were roasted, and the ants tasted like, well… chocolate.  I did once eat a softshelled crab (alive!), and I actually hope to one day taste the enormous grub of the giant metallic ceiba borer, Euchroma gigantea, eaten by indigenous cultures in Central and South America.   Still, I think I’d need a lot of faith in my chef’s scent gland removal prowess before I started scarfing Magodo down like popcorn.

What insects have you eaten?

REFERENCES:

Brailovsky, H.  2008. Notes on the genus Petascelis Signoret and description of one new species (Hemiptera: Heteroptera: Coreidae: Coreinae: Petascelini).  Zootaxa 1749:18–26.

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

van Huis, A. 2003. Insects as food in sub-Saharan Africa. Insect Science and Its Application 23(3):163-185.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Tigers in the Nebraska Badlands

In going back through the photos I accumulated during my recent “fall tiger beetle trip” and reading the periodic updates that I provided along the way, I fear that I gave unfairly short shrift to one of the most scenic areas that I visited. Part of this was due to my preoccupation with and excitement at having found Cicindela nebraskana (prairie longlipped tiger beetle), whose distribution just barely sneaks into the extreme northwestern corner of Nebraska. The beetle makes its home in the mixed-shortgrass prairies lying above the Pine Ridge, a north-facing escarpment where exposures of deep sandy clay sediments intercalated with volcanic ash have been carved into dramatic buttes, ridges and canyons. Cloaked in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), with riparian ribbons of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and cottonwood (Populus deltoides) – during my visit showing the earliest hints of their vivid autumnal yellow dress, the Pine Ridge is not only one of Nebraska’s most dramatic landforms but also bears significant historical importance. It is here where the the final chapter of the Sioux and Cheyenne resistance to white settlement of the northern Plains took place, with the 1877 murder/assassination of Crazy Horse at nearby Fort Robinson, after he had surrendered to U.S. troops, all but sealing their fate.

In dramatic contrast to the forested escarpment and gentle prairie that lies atop it, a stark, otherworldly landscape spreads out below the nearly 1,500-foot drop down the escarpment from the High Plains above. I refer, of course, to the Nebraska Badlands, a southern sliver of the same landscape whose heart – Badlands National Park – draws almost a million visitors a year. For the past several hundred thousand years, water and wind have carved the deep Oligocene sediments into an eerie maze of ravines, pinnacles, gullies, and sharp-crested hills. Desolate and arid, it would seem that nothing could live in this hot, naked landscape that early French-Canadian fur trappers called les mauvaises terres à traverser – “the bad lands to cross.” In fact, life abounds in the Badlands – pronghorns, deer, jackrabbits, and of course – tigers!

Our search for Cicindela nebraskana in the high prairie, though already successful, was brought most inconveniently to an end when a line of showers moved over us. It was probably a good thing, as we were forced to move on and give ourselves a chance to see different things. I could have easily ended up frittering away the remainder of the afternoon endlessly scanning the narrow cow paths that crisscrossed the prairie in hopes of finding “just one more” of the little beetles that just a few hours earlier had been only a hope. Matt asked me if I wanted to see C. lengi or C. fulgida first. I looked at the sky – cloudy over the prairie and sunny to the north over the Badlands – and voted for the latter. I had been marveling at the Pine Ridge on every approach during the day, and dropping down the face of the escarpment through Monroe Canyon provided yet another spectacular vantage. As soon as we arrived on the plain below, the road turned to gravel and the landscape morphed into a patchwork of sparse, dry grass amongst barren exposures of multicolored earth. I looked out at the barren exposures – seemingly ideal habitat for tiger beetles – and asked Matt what species were out there. He shook his head and said, “Nothing lives there.”

Our destination was a dry, alkaline creek several miles north in the Oglala National Grassland (administered, somewhat ironically, by the U.S. Forest Service). Matt had seen Cicindela fulgida (crimson saltflat tiger beetle) darting over the salt-encrusted ground amongst bunches of saltgrass on a previous visit, and after some back and forth searching we finally located what we hoped was the correct spot. Only small strips of alkaline soil were seen at first, but as we moved further away from the road the alkaline patches became much more expansive. Although dry, the habitat looked perfect for C. fulgida, and it didn’t take long for Matt to flush one from the bunches of saltgrass. Unfortunately, that would be the last individual we would see for the day. Another hour of searching yielded no more, and eventually the showers that chased us from the mixed-shortgrass prairie above would put an end to our fulgida-search, also. I would have to be content with having had seen one as I admired the fantastical displays of rainbows and virga brought over us by the unsettled skies.

Cicindela fulgida was not, however, the only tiger beetle species we found living in this harsh environment. Cicindela purpurea (cow path tiger beetle) is not nearly so choosy as its common name implies, occurring in virtually any open, clay habitat without regard to its alkalinity. Western Nebraska populations are assignable to subspecies audubonii, which occurs broadly across all but the most southerly Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, although I am loathe to accept the validity of this subspecies due to the existence of a broad zone of intergradation in the eastern half of the prairie states with eastern nominotypical populations. Regardless of its taxonomy, C. purpurea is quite abundant in western Nebraska and appears in two distinct color forms – green and black, the latter of which I was quite excited to see. It took quite some effort to finally obtain the acceptable photos that I show here – especially with the black individuals since they were not so commonly encountered. It was hard to get close, and when I managed to get close they would more often than not run just as I was about to snap the shutter. As evidence of the frustration I experienced trying to get a photo of the black form, I include here an example of an early attempt that, for some reason, I spared from a quick punch of the ‘Delete’ key (click on it to experience the full extent of my frustration). I also lucked into spotting this female that had captured a blister beetle (family Meloidae), apparently unphased by the toxic cantharidins (and active ingredient in ‘Spanish fly’) present in the hemolymph of its prey. Lucky is the fellow who encounters this female once she finishes her meal!

Almost as abundant as C. purpurea was C. tranquebarica (oblique lined tiger beetle). This is another species that is not too fastidious about its habitat – sand, clay, alkaline or not, as long as there is some amount of water nearby this species will be satisfied. Like C. purpurea (and many species of tiger beetles, in fact), western populations in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains are considered subspecifically distinct from eastern populations, but with that annoyingly broad intergrade zone running down through the eastern half of the prairie states. In the case of this species, western populations are called subspecies kirbyi, differing in a most insignificant manner by their widened elytral maculations. I’ll let the reader infer how I feel about the validity of such subspecific distinction. Larval burrows of this species are often found in very high densities, and considering its abundance at this site I suspect these might be the larval burrows of that species. I spent quite a bit of time trying to fish out larvae from these burrows but ended up with only one. There are, however, other species of tiger beetles that live in these alkaline habitats, including the highly desirable Cicindela terricola (variable tiger beetle) which just sneaks into western Nebraska, so I’m not making a call on its identity yet. It’s now enjoying its new burrow in a container of alkaline soil sitting on my lab bench, and just yesterday it ate a nice, fat fall armyworm larva for lunch.