Summer Insect Collecting iRecap

At the beginning of the season I was planning to spend the first week of June collecting insects in southeastern New Mexico. Family issues intervened, however, and left me with a week of vacation time and no plans on how to use it. I’ve never been one to not use vacation time, so I quickly came up with a backup plan—a Friday here and a Monday there to create several 3–4 day weekends. Long weekends may not allow travel to far off and exotic places, but they do allow me to travel a bit further than I would for a regular weekend. I also took advantage of my frequent travel for work to stop off at favorite collecting sites for an evening of blacklighting (much more fun than sitting in a hotel room) or a half-day in the field before getting back home. I always have my big camera with me for serious insect photography when the opportunity arises, but I also take frequent iPhone snapshots to document the “flavor” of my time in the field. In previous years, I’ve collected snapshots from my extended trips into “iReports”, which were later followed by posts featuring subjects that I spent “quality camera time” with (see 2013 western Oklahoma, 2013 Great Basin, and 2014 Great Plains). I’ve decided to do the same thing now, only instead of a single trip this report covers an entire summer. I realize few people have the patience for long-reads; nevertheless, enough readers have told me that they like my trip reports and all of their gory details to make this a worthwhile exercise. If you’re not among them, scan the photos—all of which were taken with a stock iPhone 5S and processed using Photoshop Elements version 11—and you’re done!


Searching for the Ghost Tiger Beetle
Central/Northwest Missouri (12–14 June 2015)

In mid-June my good friend, colleague, and fellow cicindelophile Chris Brown and I followed the Missouri River Valley across the state and and up along its northwestern border to visit previously known and potentially new sites for Ellipsoptera lepida—the Ghost Tiger Beetle. We first saw this lovely white species back in 2000 while visiting some of the large sand deposits laid down in central and east-central Missouri by the 1993 flood. In the years since these sites have become increasingly encroached by forests of eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), making them less and less suitable for the beetle (it also remains one of only two tiger beetles known to occur in Missouri that I have not yet photographed). In the meantime several new sand deposits have been laid down in northwestern Missouri by flooding in 2011, so the question has come up whether the beetle has yet occupied these new sites. We started out at a couple of potentially new sites in east-central Missouri (and did not find the beetle), then went to one of two known sites in central Missouri. We did not find the beetle there either, but we did find this eastern hognose snake  (Heterodon platirhinos).

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) | vic. Eagle Rock Conservation Area, Boone Co.

Hognose snakes are well known for their vaired repertoire of defensive behaviors—from flattening of the head and hissing to rolling over and playing dead (a behavior called thanatosis)—the latter behavior often accompanied by bleeding from the mouth and even defecating onto itself. This one, however, was content to simply flatten its head and hiss, its tongue constantly flickering.

Eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

The flattened head is an attempt by the snake to make itself appear larger and more imposing.

Standing its ground as tenaciously as it did, I took advantage of the opportunity to close in tight and take a burst series of photos, which I used to create this animated gif of the snake’s constantly flickering tongue.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

After an evening of driving to northwest Missouri and a stay in one of our favorite local hotels (eh hem…), we awoke to find the scene below at our first destination.

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded wildlife refuge

Ted MacRae & Chris Brown look out over a flooded Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

No tiger beetles there! What to do now. One thing I love about modern times is the ability to pull out the smart phone and scan satellite images of the nearby landscape. Doing this we were able to locate a large sand deposit just to the south and navigate local, often unmarked roads to eventually wind up at a spot where we could access the area on foot. But before we did this we needed gas, and the only gas station for miles was a Sinclair station with a bona fide, original green dinosaur—one of the most potent and iconic corporate symbols ever! I remember these from my childhood, but this is the first one I’ve seen in years.

Authentic Sinclair dinosaur

An authentic Sinclair dinosaur guards the only gas station for miles.

Rain the night before had made the roads muddy, and it was only with some difficulty that we finally located a way to access the sand deposits we had seen on the satellite images. Even then we needed to hike a half-mile to access the sand plain, but once we got there this is what we saw:

Sand plain deposited 2009

Sand plain deposited 2011 along Missouri River, Thurnau Conservation Area, Holt Co.

At first we were optimistic—the habitat looked perfect for not only E. lepida but also the more commonly seen Cicindela formosa generosa (Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle) and, at least in this area, C. scutellaris lecontei (LeConte’s Tiger Beetle). We saw no adults however, as we searched the plain, and we wondered if the cool, cloudy conditions that lingered from the previous evening’s storms were suppressing adult activity. After awhile, however, we noted that we hadn’t even found evidence of larval burrows, and that is when we began to think that maybe four years wasn’t long enough for populations to establish in such a vast expanse of new habitat. Eventually Chris did find a single E. lepida adult—a nice record but certainly not evidence of a healthy population.

Sand plain deposited 2009

Seemingly perfect habitat, but void of active adults or evidence of larval burrows.

The next sand plain we visited was a little further north at Corning Conservation Area, also in Holt Co. and also laid down by the 2011 flood. Once again we saw no active tiger beetles in the area, and by this point we were convinced that the species were not just inactive but had not yet even colonized the plains. It should be noted that large sand expanses such as these actually are not exactly a natural process, but rather the result of river channeling and the use of levees to protect adjacent farmland. Before such existed, the river existed as an intricate system of braided channels that rarely experienced catastrophic flooding. Nowadays, with the river confined to a single, narrow channel, the river valley doesn’t experience a normal ebb and flow of water. Only when water levels reach such extreme levels in the narrow channel that they breach a levee does the adjacent valley flood, with the area immediately downstream from the levee breach receiving huge amounts of sand and mud scoured from the breach zone. Tiger beetle species adapted to ephemeral sand plain habitats along big rivers probably

Sand plain deposited 2009

Another sand plain deposited in 2011 at Corning Conservation Area, Holt. Co.

Cottonwoods and willows were already colonizing the edge of the plain, and the latter were heavily infested by large blue leaf beetles. As far as I know the only species of Altica in Missouri associated with willow is A. subplicata, although admittedly it is a large, diverse genus and there could be other willow-associates within the state that I am unaware of. The beetles seemed especially fond of the smaller plants (1–3′ in height), while taller plants were relatively untouched.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Altica subplicata? (willow flea beetle) | Holt Co., Missouri

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Beetles congregated heavily on smaller willow plants.

Altica bimarginata (willow flea beetle)

Despite the heavy adult feeding we could find no larvae on the foliage.

Few other insects were seen. I did see a large, standing, dead cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and checked it out hoping hoping to find a Buprestis confluenta adult or two on its naked trunk (a species I found for the first time last year and still have yet to find in Missouri, although it is known from the state). No such luck, but I did collect a couple of large mordellids off of the tree. Let me say also that there were some interesting other plants in the area…

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

After satisfying ourselves that Corning also was not yet colonized by the tiger beetles, we drove further north into Atchison Co., the northwesternmost county in the state, to check out one more sand plain deposited by the 2011 flood at Nishnabotna Conservation Area. The sand plain at this area was much smaller than the two previous plains we had visited, and it was also far less accessible, requiring a bushwhacking hike through thick vegetation that was quite rank in some areas. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, motivated by the hope that maybe the third time would be a charm and we would find the beetles that we were searching for. The hike was not all bad—eagles were abundant in the area, and in one distant tree we could see a female perched near her nest with two large nestlings sitting in it. The passing storm system and sinking sun combined to create a rainbow that arched gracefully over the tree with the nest, resulting in one of the more memorable visions from the trip.

Rainbow over eagle's nest

Rainbow over eagle’s nest (tree is located at left one-third of photo).

By the time we got close enough to get a better photograph of the nest the female had departed, but the two nestlings could still be seen sitting in the nest. Sadly, the rather great effort we made to hike to the sand plain was not rewarded with any tiger beetles, and in fact the sand plain was little more than a narrow, already highly vegetated ridge that will probably be completely encroached before the tiger beetles ever find it.

Eagles in nest

Eagles in nest

Ellipsoptera lepida was not the only tiger beetle we were hoping to see on the trip. The Sandy Stream Tiger Beetle, E. macra, has also been recorded from this part of the state, and being members of the genus Ellipsoptera both species can be attracted to lights at night. In one last effort to see either of these species, we went to Watson Access on the Nishnabotna River, near its confluence with the Missouri River. Thunder clouds retreating to the east were illuminated by the low hanging sun to the west, creating spectacular views in both directions. Unfortunately, the insect collecting at the blacklights after sunset was not near as interesting as the sky views that preceded it.

Sunset lit thunderclouds

Sunset lit thunderclouds to the east…

Sunset on the Nishnabotna River

… and a bright colored sunset to the west on the Nishnabotna River, Atchison Co.

The next day we had to start making our way back to St. Louis. But while we were in the area we decided to check on the status of one of Missouri’s rarest tiger beetlesParvindela celeripes (formerly Cylindera celeripes)—the Swift Tiger Beetle. Not known to occur in Missouri until 2010, this tiny, flightless species is apparently restricted in the state to just three small remnants of loess hilltop prairie in Atchison and Holt Counties. We were close to one of these—Brickyard Hill Conservation Area (where Chris and I first discovered the beetles) so stopped by to see if adults were active and how abundant they were. To our great surprise, we found adults active almost immediately upon entering the site, and even more pleasantly surprising the adults were found not just in the two small areas of the remnant where we had seen them before but also in the altered pasture (planted with brome for forage) on the hillside below the remnant (foreground in photo below). This was significant in our minds, as it was the very first time we have observed this beetle in substantially altered habitat. The beetle was observed in relatively good numbers as well, bolstering our hopes that the beetles were capabale of persisting in these small areas and possibly utilized altered pastureland adjacent to the remnants.

Loess hilltop prairie

Brickyard Hill Conservation Area, loess hilltop prairie habitat for Parvindela celeripes

As we made our way back towards St. Louis, there was one more site created by the 1993 flood where we observed E. lepida in the early 2000s that we wanted to check out and see how the beetle was doing. In the years since we first came to Overton Bottoms, much of its perimeter has converted to cottonwood forest; however, a large central plain with open sand exposures and bunch grasses persists—presumably providing acceptable habitat for the species. Chris had seen a few beetles here in a brief visit last summer, but this time we saw no beetles despite a rather thorough search of the central plain. It seemed untenable to think that the beetles were no longer present, and we eventually decided (hoped) that the season was still too young (E. lepida is a summer species, and the season, to this point, had been rather cool and wet). The photos below show what the central plain looks like—both from the human (first photo) and the beetle (second photo) perspective. I resolved to return later in the month to see if our hunch was correct.

Sand plain (people view)

Big Muddy NFWR, Overton Bottoms, south unit, sand plain habitat for Ellipsoptera lepida

Sand plain (tiger beetle view)

A tiger beetle’s eye view of its sand plain habitat

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then I get caught by rain while out in the field, and this time we got caught by a rather ominous thunderstorm. The rain didn’t really become too heavy until shortly before we reached the car, but the lightning was a constant concern that made bushwhacking back more than a mile through thick brush one of the more unnerving experiences that I’ve had to date.


Trying for Prionus—part 1
South-central Kansas (26–29 June 2015)

Last summer Jeff Huether and I traveled to several locations in eastern Colorado and New Mexico and western Oklahoma to find several Great Plains species of longhorned beetles in the genus Prionus using recently developed lures impregnated with prionic acid—a principal sex pheromone component for the genus. These lures are extraordinarily attractive to males of all species in the genus, and on that trip we managed to attract P. integerP. fissicornis, and P. heroicus and progress further in our eventual goal to collect all of the species in the genus for an eventual molecular phylogenetic analysis. One species that remains uncollected by pheromones (or any other method) is P. simplex, known only from the type specimen labeled simply “Ks.” A number of Prionus species in the Great Plains are associated with sand dune habitats, so we had the idea that maybe P. simplex could be found at the dunes near Medora—a popular historical collecting site, especially with the help of prionic acid lures. Perhaps a long shot, but there’s only one way to find out, so we contacted scarab specialist Mary Liz Jameson at Wichita State University, who graciously hosted Jeff, his son Mark Huether, and I for a day in the field at Sand Hills State Park. We didn’t expect Prionus to be active until dusk, during which time we planned to place lure-baited pitfall traps and also setup blacklights as another method for attracting the adult males (females don’t fly). Until then, we occupied ourselves with some day collecting—always interesting in dune habitats because of the unique sand-adapted flora and the often unusual insects associated with them.

"Medora" Dunes

Sand Hills State Park (“Medora Dunes”), Kansas

Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) are a favorite of mine, and I was stunned to see a yellow-flowered form of butterfly milkweed (A. tuberosus). Eventually I would see plants with flowers ranging from yellow to light orange to the more familiar dark orange that I know from southern Missouri. I checked the plants whenever I saw them for the presence of milkweed beetles, longhorned beetles in the genus Tetraopes (in Missouri the diminutive T. quinquemaculatus is most often associated with this plant), but saw none.

Asclepias tuberosus "yellow form"

Asclepias tuberosus “yellow form”

In the drier areas of the dunes, however, we began to see another milkweed that I recognized as sand milkweed (A. arenicola). I mentioned to Jeff and Mary Liz that a much rarer species of milkweed beetle, T. pilosus, was associated with this plant and to be on the lookout for it (I had found a single adult on this plant at a dune in western Oklahoma a few years back). Both the beetle and the plant are restricted to the Quaternary sandhills of the midwestern U.S., and within minutes of me telling them to be on the alert we found the first adult! During the course of the afternoon we found the species to be quite common in the area, always in association with A. arenicola, and I was happy to finally have a nice series of these beetles for my collection.

Tetraopes pilosus

Two Sandhills specialties—Tetraopes pilosus on Asclepias arenaria

Milkweed beetles weren’t the only insects associated with sand milkweed in the area—on several plants we saw Monarch butterfly larvae, some nearing completion of the larval stage as the one shown in the photo below. Monarchs have been in the news quite a bit lately as their overwintering populations show declines in recent years for reasons that are not fully understood but may be related to recent droughts diminishing availability of nectaring plants for migrating adults and reduction of available food plants as agricultural lands in the U.S. become increasingly efficient.

Danaus plexippus larva

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larva on Asclepias arenaria

We found some other interesting insects such as the spectacular Plectrodera scalator, cottonwood borer, and the southern Great Plains specialty scarab, Strigoderma knausi, both of which I took the time to photograph with the big camera—separate posts on those species will appear in the future. Sadly, no Prionus came to either our lures or our lights that evening, but some interesting other insects were seen during the day and even at the lights despite unseasonably cool temperatures and a bright moon. I’ll post photographs of these insects, taken with the “big” camera, in the coming weeks. In the meantime, my thanks to Mary Liz for hosting us—I look forward to our next chance to spend some time in the field together.

Ted MacRae, Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, Mary Liz Jameson

Ted MacRae shows Mark Huether, Jeff Huether, and Mary Liz Jameson how to take a panoramic selfie.

The following day, Adam James Hefel—at the time a graduate student at Wichita State University—and I traveled northwest of Wichita to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Adam has recently become interested in tiger beetles and had observed several interesting species on the margins of the salt marshes at Quivira. Several of these species were on my “still to photograph” list (and one even on my “still to see” list), so I was happy to have access to some local knowledge to help me

Salt marsh

Quivira NWR – salt marsh habitat for halophilic tiger beetles

The saline flats of the central U.S. are hyperdiverse for tiger beetles. Adam has seen six species in the saling flats of Quivira, including the saline specialists Cicindela fulgida, C. wllistoni, Ellipsoptera nevadica knausi, Eunota togata, and E. circumpicta johnsonii (formerly Habroscelimorpha) (both red and green forms) and the ubiquitous Cicindelidia punctulata. We managed to find all of these except C. willistoni, which is a spring/fall species—unusual for a saline specialist, but the extreme heat of the day made them exceedingly difficult to approach (and virtually impossible to photograph).

Salt marsh

Tiger beetles are found most often in alkaline flats with sparse vegetation

Salt marsh

The wide open central flats are devoid of not only vegetation but tiger beetles (and life in general!).

Ever fascinated by the diversity of milkweeds to be found in the central U.S., an unfamiliar Asclepias growing in the higher, drier areas around a salt marsh caught my attention. Of course, I checked them for milkweed beetles and quickly found a number of Tetraopes tetraophthalmus individuals. John Oliver kindly identified the milkweed from my photos as Asclepias speciosa (showy milkweed), which does not occur in Missouri (hence the reason I was not familiar with it) but that gets common in the Great Plains and foothills of the Rocky Mountain.

Asclepias speciosa

Asclepias speciosa, or showy milkweed.

Asclepias speciosa

The specific epithet “specioosa” refers to the large, showy flowers.

Tiger beetles were not the only wildlife encountered on the saline flats. Killdeer and western snowy plover adults were abundant in the area, and we found this next with eggs along the lightly vegetated edge of a saline flat around Big Salt Marsh. Cheryl Miller suggested they are probably plover eggs, since killdeer don’t usually scrape out a cup or put debris around the eggs, while snowy plovers are known to nest on or near salt flats and frequently surround their eggs with twigs, small bones or other debris.

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) eggs

Western snowy plover (Charadrius nivosus) nest with eggs at the edge of an open flat

During the drive into the refuge, I noted several stands of large cottonwood (Populus deltoides), many of which were half- or completely dead. To some, these trees may be just ugly, half-dead trees. For me, however, they offer an opportunity to look for the gorgeous and rarely encountered Buprestis confluens, a species which I found for the first time just last year (not too far from hear in north-central Oklahoma). After getting our fill of tiger beetles, we drove to a parking lot surrounded by some of these trees, and even before I got out of the car I could see an adult B. confluens sitting on the trunk of a large, dead tree at the edge of the parking lot! I quickly secured the specimen, then spotted the half-dead tree in the photo below and walked towards it to look for more. I did not see any adults sitting on the trunk, but what I did see was truly incredible—two adults just beginning to emerge from the trunk! Waiting for one of the adults to emerge naturally (we “helped” the other one along) and photographing the sequence would occupy the next hour, but what an experience (and, of course, photos to come in a separate post).

Populus deltoides surrounded by hemp

This large, half-dead Populus deltoides “screams” Buprestis confluenta!

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa)

Wild hemp (Cannabis sativa) fills the are with a pungent aroma.

After a break from the heat and something to eat in the nearest town (20 miles away), I returned to the cottonwoods, broke out the hatchet, and began chopping. Cottonwood is an amazingly soft wood compared to hardwoods such as oak and hickory, but dead cottonwood is still tough, and only after much effort did I manage to chop out two pupae (one of which later successfully emerged as an adult) and two unemerged adults, resulting in a nice, if still rather small, series of a species that until last year was not represented in my collection and until this time by only a single specimen.

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Chopping Buprestis confluenta unemerged adults/pupae

Buprestis confluenta pupa

Exposed Buprestis confluenta pupa in its pupal chamber.

With the setting sun illuminating distant thunderclouds, I returned to the salt marshes to setup blacklights for the evening in hopes of attracting some of the tiger beetles that we had seen earlier in the day—not in attempt to collect more specimens, but rather to take advantage of their attraction to the lights and reduced skittishness in the cool, night air in an attempt to photograph them (I already had live specimens for studio photographs if necessary, but I prefer actual field photographs whenever possible). Eunota togata was not attracted to the lights, but both E. nevadica knausi and E. circumpicta johnsonii came to the lights in numbers (both red and green forms of the latter), and I succeeded in getting some real nice photographs as a result.

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

Thundercloud illuminated by setting sun

On the way back home, and again with the sun dropping close to the horizon, I stopped by Overton Bottoms again to look for Ellipsoptera lepida. Chris and I hadn’t see it here two weeks ago, and I was thinking (hoping) that it might have still a bit early in the season. This time I found them, and although they were not numerous and were apparently confined to the southernmost exposures of the central sand plain, they were still plentiful enough to allow me to get the field shots that I’ve wanted of this species for so long (and providing fodder for yet another future post). This species never seems to be encountered in great numbers, and although I have seen them on a number of occasions it always amazes me just how difficult they are to see!

Sand plain

Another pass through Overton Bottoms looking for Ellipsoptera lepida, this time with success!


Tryin’ for Prionus—part 2
South-central Kansas (11–12 July 2015)

Although our long-shot effort for Prionus simplex at the dunes near Medora, Kansas didn’t pan out, another species we hoped to see was P. debilis—a rather uncommonly collected species that occurs in the tallgrass prairies of the eastern Great Plains and, to our knowledge, had not yet been demonstrated to be attracted to prionic acid. I’d only seen this species once myself, some 30 years ago when I collected four males at lights near the southwestern edge of Missouri. As it happens, longtime cerambycid collector Dan Heffern grew up in P. debilis-land near Yates Center—not too far from where we were just a few weeks ago. When I mentioned my search for the species, he told me how commonly he used to see it around his home—especially around the 4th of July—and put me in contact with a friend who still lives in the area and has several tallgrass prairie remnants on his land. I made arrangements to visit the following weekend, and with prionic acid impregnated lures in the cooler and blacklights and sheets in the cargo area I set off. As I passed south through eastern Kansas I began to see nice tallgrass prairie remnants about 20 miles from my destination, so I took a chance and set a trap as a backup in case things didn’t pan out near Yates Center.

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Trap baited with prionic acid lure

Things did pan out, however, although for a long time it did not appear they would. Dan’s friend kept me company while I placed a couple of traps and setup the blacklights, and for a couple of hours after sunset no beetles were seen (although we did enjoy good beer and better conversation). Just when I was ready to throw in the towel I saw a male crawling on the ground near one of the lights, and over the course of the next hour I found nearly a dozen males crawling on the ground in the general area around the lights but never actually at the lights. Interestingly, no males were actually seen in flight, nor were any attracted to the trap placed near one of the lights; however, after I took down the lights and checked the other trap there were five males in it. This likely represents the first demonstration of attraction to prionic acid by males P. debilis. I brought a couple of live males home for photography, taking this iPhone shot of a sleeping beetle in the meantime.

Prionus debilis "sleeping"

Prionus debilis “sleeping”in its cage after being taken near an ultraviolet light

One the way back home the next morning, success already “in the bag”, I stopped to check the trap I had placed the previous day. Filled with anticipation as I approached the trap, I was elated to find 21 males in the trap!

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis in prionic acid lure-baited trap

The male antennae of this and other Prionus species show numerous adaptations that are all designed to maximize the ability to detect sex pheromones emitted into the air by females. They are both hyper-segmented and flabellate, providing maximum surface area for poriferous areas filled with chemical receptors. Larval habits for this species remain unknown, but Lingafelter (2007) states “Larvae may feed in living roots of primarily Quercus and Castanea, but also Vitis, Pyrus, and Zea mays.” I am not sure of the source of this information and don’t really believe it, either, as I think it much more likely that they feed on roots of bunch grasses such as bluestems (Andropogon spp.) and other grass species common in the tallgrass prairies.

Prionus debilis

Prionus debilis “looking” out over its tallgrass prairie habitat

Before reaching St. Louis, I decided to stop off at the last two known sites for Missouri’s endangered (possibly extirpated), disjunct, all-blue population of Eunota circumpicta johnsonii (Johnson’s Tiger Beetle). This didn’t go well—I first tried Blue Lick Conservation Area in Cooper County, where Chris Brown and I made the last known sighting of this beetle in the state 12 years ago at a salt spring about 500 yards further down the road in the photo below. I’m unsure what adaptations adults and larvae may have for surviving prolonged flooding, but it certainly cannot be helpful for the beetle. I then visited nearby Boone’s Lick State Historic Site in Howard County, and while the site was not flooded the two small areas where salt springs were located during our survey were even more heavily encroached by vegetation than before. Not only were no beetles seen, there did not even seem to be the slightest possibility that beetles could occur there. I keep hoping that the beetle will, someday, be seen again, but in reality I think I am just having trouble accepting the fact that I may have actually witnessed the extirpation of this incredibly beautiful and unusual population of beetles.

Flooded road leading to saline lick tiger beetle habitat

Flooded road leading to last known Missouri site for Eunota circumpicta johnsonii


Chillin’ after work
Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, central Illinois (15 July 2015)

By the time mid-July rolls along, temperatures are not the only thing heating up. My travel for work also reaches a fever pitch as I begin traveling to research plots in Illinois and Tennessee every  two weeks. It takes three days to make the +1,000-mile round trip, which means that I have two nights and an occasional afternoon stop to collect insects—much more fun than checking into hotel right after work, eating dinner at Applebee’s, and spending the evening switching back and forth between FOX and MSNBC to see who can make the most outrageous statement because IFC just isn’t offered. One of my favorite spots along this route to set up a blacklight is Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve in Mason County, Illinois. Nothing too spectacular showed up at the lights there this season, but as they say a bad day (or night) of bug collecting is better than a good day of just about anything else.

Ted MacRae at the blacklight

Calling all insects—the blacklight awaits you!

On this particular night a number of hawk moths (family Sphingidae) came to the lights, among the prettier of which included this Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) (kindly identified by Robert Velten).

Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecata

Paonias excaecata (blinded sphinx) | Sand Prairie – Scrub Oak Preserve, Mason Co., Illinois


More chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (28 July 2015)

Another species of Prionus that I hadn’t seen for many years was P. pocularis, a species found in the pineywoods across the southeastern U.S. and, thus, reaching its northwestern distributional limits in the shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) forests of the Ozark Highlands in southern Missouri. Like P. debilis, I had only seen this species once before—two males at a blacklight at Pinewoods Lake National Forest Recreation Area in Carter County many years ago. Unlike P. debilis, however, these were seen later in summer, as were a few other specimens known from the state. That being the case, I decided to try the prionic acid lures at Pinewoods Lake while traveling back up from Tennessee. I arrived at the lake shortly before sunset and, after getting the traps put out and the lights setup, had the chance to look out over the lake and its surrounding forests where I had collected so many insects back in the 1980s as a young, eager, budding coleopterist.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Quite some time passed and no Prionus beetles were seen at the light or in the trap (but several other longhorned beetles did occur). Recalling my experience with P. debilis in Kansas a few weeks earlier, I remained hopeful, and eventually my optimism was rewarded when I found this single male floating in the trap’s ethanol preservative. Curiously, it would be the only male seen that night, although several individuals of the related and much more common P. imbricornis were attracted to the prionic acid lures.

Prionus pocularis

Prionus pocularis in prionic acid lure-baited trap | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Several other insects did come to the blacklights, among the more photogenic being this underwing moth (genus Catacola, family Noctuidae) identified by Mathew L. Brust as Catocala neogama.

Catocala neogama

Catocala neogama at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even more photogenic than underwings are royal moths (family Saturniidae), including this imperial moth, Eacles imperialis.

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth)

Eacles imperialis (imperial moth) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Among the longhorned beetles I mentioned that did come to the lights was this Orthosoma brunneum (brown prionid). This species is closely related to prionid beetles (both are in the subfamily Prioninae). However, it is not a member of the genus Prionus, and, thus, is not attracted to prionic acid. It is perhaps no coincidence that males of this species do not exhibit the hypersegmentation and flabellate modifications of their antennae possessed by males in the genus Prionus, though they may still rely on sex pheromones for locating females.

Orthosoma brunneum

Orthosoma brunneum at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Even spiders were coming to the blacklights, perhaps attracted not by the light itself but by the ready availability of potential prey.

Black widow spider (Latrodectus mactans) female

Latrodectus mactans (black widow) at ultraviolet light | Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Cicadamania!
White River Hills region, southwest Missouri (1–2 August 2015)

Although I had succeeded in finding Prionus pocularis earlier in the week at Pinewoods Lake, I wasn’t satisfied with having found just a single individual. I had nothing on the calendar the following weekend, so I decided to make a run down to one of my favorite areas in all of Missouri—the White River Hills of extreme southwest Missouri. The only other record of the species in Missouri is from that area, with its abundance of shortleaf pine forests (the species breeds in decadent pines), and I though how nice it would be to find more individuals in a part of the state that I love so much. The plan was to drive down, set a prionic acid trap or two once I got into the pine forests of the area, and then find a good spot to setup some blacklights with one more prionic acid trap that I could monitor. The plan was executed perfectly, and I ended up setting up the lights on a ridge just south of Roaring River State Park; however, the beetles never came. Nevertheless, like I said earlier a bad day/night of bug collecting is still better than just about anything else, and there was plenty at and near the lights to keep the night interesting. Once was this tiny walkingstick nymph that I found hanging out at the tip of a blade of grass. I was intrigued by the rather peculiar position adopted by the resting animal, with its forelegs and antennae extended straight out in front of the body with their tips resting on the grass blade.

Undet. juvenile walkingstick

Undetermined walkingstick nymph | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

One thing I love about blacklighting for insects is the sounds of the night—katydids fill the black night with raspy calls while Whip-Poor-Wills and their country cousins the Poor-Will’s-Widows hoot and cluck in the distance.

Undet. adult katydid?

Undetermined katydid | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

As I was photographing the walkingstick, I felt something crawling on my neck. After many years of doing this, I’ve learned not to freak out and slap wildly at something crawling on my neck, because 1) more often than not it is something interesting and 2) even if it isn’t particularly interesting it’s almost never capable of biting or stinging. Still, I don’t want to just grab it unseen or pin it against my neck—instead I kind of “scoop” it away with my fingers and toss it onto the ground beside me in one swift, assertive movement. This night’s mystery neck crawler was about as interesting as they get—Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle), the largest beetle in eastern North America. This one is a female by virtue of its lack of any horns on the head and pronotum.

Dynastes tityus female

Female Dynastes tityus (eastern Hercules beetle) | Mark Twain N.F., Barry Co., Missouri

After pulling the lights down for the night, I drove to Mincy Conservation Area, one of the many dolomite glades in the area in the next county over and one that I had not visited for some time. There are no hotels in the area, and my bones are a little too old to be sleeping on the ground, so I just pulled into the campground, took off my shoes, changed into PJs, and laid the driver’s seat all the way back for a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep. My frugalness would have its reward, although I did not know it until I awoke early the next morning to a hauntingly beautiful fog. I’d never seen the glades in such manner—so serene. I knew the rising sun would quickly burn off the fog and and the moment would be lost if I didn’t act quickly, so I grabbed both big camera and iPhone and, put on some shoes (didn’t bother with changing out of my PJs), and walked the glade taking as many photos as I could. While the quality of the iPhone snaps doesn’t compare with those taken with the big camera, they nevertheless convey the quiet beauty of the glade.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Morning fog over the dolomite glade | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) is a characteristic plant of limestone and dolomite glades in the Ozark Highlands of southern Missouri.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

Missouri coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Morning dew makes spider webs abundantly conspicuous.

Morning fog on a spider web

Morning fog on a spider web | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Eventually the rising sun began to burn through the cool, damp fog, portending another day of searing heat in the xeric glade landscape.

Morning fog over the dolomite glade

The rising sun begins to burn off the fog | Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri

Heading back to my car as temperatures began to rise quickly, I was struck by the cacophony of cicadas that were already getting into high gear with their droning buzz calls. As I passed underneath one particular tree I noticed the song was coming from a branch very near my head. I like cicadas, but I was there to look for the spectacular Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), a glade species associated with gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum). Had it been the song of a “normal” cicada like Neotibicen lyricen (lyric cicada) or N. pruinosus (scissor grinder cicada) I would have paid it no mind. It was, instead, unfamiliar and distinctive, and when I searched the branches above me I recognized the beautiful insect responsible for the call as Neotibicen superbus (superb cicada), a southwest Missouri specialty—sumptuous lime-green above and bright white pruinose beneath. I had not seen this spectacular species since the mid 1980s (most of my visits to the area have been in the spring or the fall rather than high summer), so I spent the next couple of hours attempting to photograph an individual in situ with the big camera. This is much, much easier said than done—the bulging eyes of cicadas give them exceptional vision, and they are very skittish and quick to take flight. I knew I had the iPhone photo shown below if all else failed, and for some time every individual I tried to approach ended up fluttering off with a screech before I could even compose a shot, much less press the shutter. Persistence paid off, however, and I eventually succeeded in locating, approaching, and photographing an unusually calm female resting at chest height on the trunk of a persimmon tree. Along the way I checked the gum bumelia trees hoping to spot one of the beautiful longhorned beetles associated with that tree, but none were seen.

Neotibicen superbus

Neotibicen superbus

It was already high noon by the time I finished up at the Mincy glades, so I began to retrace my steps to check the prionic acid traps that I had set out the day before. Along the way I stopped by Chute Ridge Glade Natural Area in Roaring River State Park, another place where I have seen bumelia borers, so I stopped to try my luck there before continuing on to pick up the traps. Again, none were seen, but in addition to numerous individuals of N. superbus I found another species of cicada, still undetermined by more robust and nearly blackish and with a throatier call that sounding a bit like a machine gun (or table saw hitting a nail!). Despite the lack of bumelia borers, I enjoyed my time on the glade immensely and eventually had to call it quits if I was to get to all of my traps before nightfall.

IMG_6373_enh_1230x720


Still more chillin’ after work
Pinewoods Lake, southeast Missouri (11 August 2015)

Two attempts at Prionus pocularis in the past two weeks had netted me but a single specimen—this species was becoming my summer nemesis. So when I found myself back in Tennessee for field trial work and the timing still right I decided to spend the evening at Pinewoods Lake once again before heading back to St. Louis and see if the third time would be a charm. I found a new restaurant in the tiny nearby town of Ellsinore, and the dinner special that evening was fried catfish—hoo boy! My belly was in a good place after that, filling me with optimism that I would have success tonight. I got to the lake at dusk, quick setup the blacklights and put the prionic acid traps in place, and waited for the bugs to come in.

Pinewoods Lake at dusk

Pinewoods Lake at dusk, again!

The evening’s first visitor to the lights was a parandrine cerambycid—Neandra brunnea. Believe it or not, this was the first time I have ever seen the species alive (once before finding a dead specimen in a Japanese beetle trap waaaay back in the mid-1980s!)—a pretty nice find. In fact, Pinewoods Lake produced a number of good finds during those days back in the 1980s when I was collecting here regularly—longhorned beetles such as Acanthocinus nodosus, Enaphalodes hispicornis, and the aforementioned Prionus pocularis, male Lucanus elaphus stage beetles, the jewel beetle Dicerca pugionata on ninebark in the draws, and the seldom seen tiger beetle Apterodela unipunctata (formerly Cylindera unipunctata), just to name a few.

Neandra brunnea

Neandra brunnea | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

Seeing N. brunnea and the prospects of collecting P. pocularis weren’t the only things putting me in a good mood…

Blacklighting w/ beer

Blacklighting is better with beer!

My optimism, unfortunately, would eventually prove to be unfounded, as not only did P. pocularis never show up—either at the blacklights or the prionic acid traps, no other beetles showed up as well, longhorned or otherwise. When that happens, I have no choice but to start paying attention to other insects that show up at the lights. It was slim pickings on this night for some reason, making this already striking moth identified by Alex Harman as Panthea furcilla  (tufted white pine caterpillar or eastern panthea) in the family Noctuidae stand out even more so. 

Panthea furcilla

Panthea furcilla | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri

While walking between the blacklights and the prionic acid traps, something suspended between two trees caught my eye. I recognized it quickly as some type of orb weaver spider (family Araneidae), but I couldn’t exactly figure out exactly what was going on until I took a closer look and saw that there were actually two spiders! I’d never seen orb weaver courtship before, so I excitedly took a few quick shots with the iPhone and then hurried back to the car to get the big camera.

Neoscona sp. courtship

Be very, very careful boy!

Sadly, the male had already departed by the time I got back, so the quick iPhone photos I took are the only record I have of that encounter. Still, I got some good photos of just the female with the big camera, along with the quicker, dirtier iPhone shots—one of which is shown below. According to Eric Eaton these are likely a species in the genus Neoscona.

Neoscona sp.

Neoscona sp. | Mark Twain N.F., Pinewoods Lake, Carter Co., Missouri


Checking out a fen
Coonville Creek Natural Area, southeast Missouri (3 September 2015)

On yet another trip back to St. Louis from Tennessee, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Coonville Creek Natural Area in St. Francois State Park, an area I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years and the outstanding feature being the calcareous wet meadow, or “fen”, that dominates the upper reaches of the creek drainage. Fen soils are constantly saturated, a result of groundwater from surrounding hills percolating through porous dolomite bedrock before hitting a resistant layer (in this case, sandstone) and seeping out onto the lower slopes. Constantly saturated soils and occasional fires (at least historically) have kept the fen open and treeless, with the cool groundwater allowing “glacial relicts” (i.e., plants common when glaciers covered the area) to persist. 

Calcareous wet meadow

Calcareous wet meadow | Coonville Creek, St. Francois State Park, St. Francois Co., Missouri

I saw a few Cicindela splendida (Splendid Tiger Beetles) on the rocky, clay 2-track leading to the area—a sure sign that fall was just around the corner, a female cicada on herbaceous vegetation in the fen (small, I think it’s not a species of Neotibicen), and a huge, fecund black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia)—I love seeing the latter at this time of year when they have grown to their largest and the females are full of eggs. In reality, however, this visit turned into more of a botanical than an insect collecting experience. Insect activity in general was low, and my attention drifted instead to the diversity of wildflowers that were present on the fen—most new to me. False dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), and Spiranthes lacera (slender ladies’-tresses orchid)—its tiny white blossoms spiraling up the leafless spike were the most interesting, resulting in lots of time spent looking at them through the big camera.

Argiope aurantia

Argiope aurantia | Coonville Creek, St. Francois Co., Missouri


The always exciting amorpha borer
Otter Slough Conservation Area, southeast Missouri (23 September 2015)

As the dog-days of summer gave way to bright, blue skies and crisp, fall air, a distinctive insect fauna takes advantage of the explosion of goldenrod that blooms across a landscape morphing from shades of green to orange, yellow, and tawny. Many of these insects are widespread and super-abundant—soldier beetles, tachinid flies, bumble and honey bees, and scoliid, tiphiid, and vespid wasps are among the most conspicuous. Megacyllene robiniae, longhorned beetles commonly called locust borers  are also common on goldenrod during fall, but much less common is a closely related species that breeds in false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa)—Megacyllene decora, or the amorpha borer. I’ve seen this species several times, yet uncommonly enough that I still target it when I get the chance. One such place is Otter Slough Conservation Area—yet another interesting place along the way between Tennessee and St. Louis. On one of my final trips back this way I stopped by to see if these spectacular beetles would be out. My attention was first caught by egrets congregating in a mud flat exposed by recent dry weather. However, they were not what I was looking for.

Egrets congregating on mud flats

Egrets congregating on mud flats | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

There is no shortage of interesting insects to look at as I begin scanning the goldenrod flowers growing along the roadsides and around the edges of the shallow pools managed for fishing and shore birds. A fat, female Stagmomantis carolina (Carolina mantis) sat on one of the first inflorescences that I checked, but she also was not what I was looking for.

Undet. mantid

Stagmomantis carolina | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

After a bit of searching, I found what I was looking for! Over the course of the next two hours (all the time I had left before sundown) I would a total of three adults on goldenrod flowers at three disparate locations within the area—again not very many, making those that I did see a real treat.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora on goldenrod | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

As dusk fell over the area, insects began bedding down for the night. I was lucky to find the last amorpha borer in the dwindling light as it bedded down next to a bumblebee—perhaps the likely model for the beetle apparent mimetic coloration.

Megacyllene decora

Megacyllene decora and a bumble bee bed down together | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

The sun sinking over the horizon behind the wetlands put an end to the collecting, not only for the day but for the season, at least here in Missouri and surrounding states. It would not be the final day of collecting for me, however, as I managed to scrape together some free time amidst my hectic travel schedule and spend a week in eastern Texas for the Annual Fall Tiger Beetle Hunt. I’ll save that trip for another report and close this one out here, but be on the lookout for higher quality photos over the coming months of the really interesting insects that I encountered over this past season. Let me also say that if you’re still reading at this point, you have my deepest admiration for having the persistence to wade through all 8,376 of the words contained within this post!

Dusk over Plover Pond

Sunset over Plover Pond | Otter Slough, Stoddard Co., Missouri

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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

Beetle Collecting 101: How to rear wood-boring beetles

I’ve been collecting wood-boring beetles for more than three decades now, and if I had to make a list of “essential” methods for collecting them I would include “beating,” “blacklighting,” and “rearing.” Beating is relatively straightforward—take a beating sheet (a square piece of cloth measuring 3–5 ft across and suspended beneath wooden, metal, or plastic cross members), position it beneath a branch of a suspected host plant, and tap the branch with a stick or net handle. Many wood-boring beetles tend to hang out on branches of their host plants, especially recently dead ones, and will fall onto the sheet when the branch is tapped. Be quick—some species (especially jewel beetles in the genus Chrysobothris) can zip away in a flash before you have a chance to grab them (especially in the heat of the day). Others (e.g., some Cerambycidae) may remain motionless and are cryptically colored enough to avoid detection among the pieces of bark and debris that also fall onto the sheet with them. Nevertheless, persistence is the key, and with a little practice one can become quite expert at efficiently collecting wood-boring beetles using this method. Blacklighting is even easier—find the right habitat (preferably on a warm, humid, moonless night), set up a blacklight in front of a white sheet, crack open a brew, and wait for the beetles to come!

Rearing, on the other hand, takes true dedication. One must not only learn potential host plants, but also how to recognize wood with the greatest potential for harboring larvae, retrieve it from the field, cut it up, place it in rearing containers, and monitor the containers for up to several months or even years before hitting pay dirt (maybe!). Despite the considerable amount of effort this can take, the results are well worth it in terms of obtaining a diversity of species (usually in good series), some of which may be difficult to encounter in the field, and identifying unequivocal larval host associations. I have even discovered two new species through rearing (Bellamy 2002, MacRae 2003)! Moreover, checking rearing containers can be a lot of fun—in one afternoon you can collect dozens or even hundreds of specimens from places far and wide, depending on how far you are willing to travel to collect the wood. Because of the effort involved, however, the more you can do to ensure that effort isn’t wasted on uninfested wood and that suitable conditions are provided to encourage continued larval development and adult emergence from infested wood the better. It is with this in mind that I offer these tips for those who might be interested in using rearing as a technique for collecting these beetles.

I should first clarify what I mean by “wood-boring” beetles. In the broadest sense this can include beetles from any number of families in which the larvae are “xylophagous,” i.e., they feed within dead wood. However, I am most interested in jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) and longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae), and as a result most of the advice that I offer below is tailored to species in these two families. That is not to say that I’ll turn down any checkered beetles (Cleridae), powderpost beetles (Bostrichidae), bark beetles (family Scolytidae), or even flat bark beetles sensu lato (Cucujoidea) that I also happen to encounter in my rearing containers, with the first two groups in particular having appeared in quite good numbers and diversity in my containers over the years. Nevertheless, I can’t claim that my methods have been optimized specifically for collecting species in these other families.

First, you have to find the wood. In my experience, the best time to collect wood for rearing is late winter through early spring. A majority of species across much of North America tend to emerge as adults during mid- to late spring, and collecting wood just before anticipated adult emergence allows the beetles to experience natural thermoperiods and moisture regimes for nearly the duration of their larval and pupal development periods. Evidence of larval infestation is also easier to spot once they’ve had time to develop. That said, there is no “bad” time to collect wood, and almost every time I go into the field I am on the lookout for infested wood regardless of the time of year. The tricky part is knowing where to put your efforts—not all species of trees are equally likely to host wood-boring beetles. In general, oaks (Quercus), hickories (Carya), and hackberries (Celtis) in the eastern U.S. host a good diversity of species, while trees such as maples (Acer), elms (Ulmus), locust (Gleditsia and Robinia), and others host a more limited but still interesting fauna. In the southwestern U.S. mesquite (Prosopis) and acacia (Acacia) are highly favored host plants, while in the mountains oaks are again favored. Everywhere, conifers (PinusAbies, JuniperusTsuga, etc.) harbor a tremendous diversity of wood-boring beetles. To become good at rearing wood-boring beetles, you have to become a good botanist and learn not only how to identify trees, but dead wood from them based on characters other than their leaves! Study one of the many good references available (e.g., Lingafelter 2007, Nelson et al. 2008) to see what the range of preferred host plants are and then start looking.

I wish it were as simple as finding the desired types of trees and picking up whatever dead wood you can findm but it’s not. You still need to determine whether the wood is actually infested. Any habitat supporting populations of wood-boring beetles is likely to have a lot of dead wood. However, most of the wood you find will not have any beetles in it because it is already “too old.” This is especially true in the desert southwest, where dead wood can persist for very long periods of time due to low moisture availability. Wood-boring beetles begin their lives as eggs laid on the bark of freshly killed or declining wood and spend much of their lives as small larvae that are difficult to detect and leave no obvious outward signs of their presence within or under the bark. By the time external signs of infestation (e.g., exit holes, sloughed bark exposing larval galleries, etc.) become obvious it is often too late—everything has already emerged. Instead, look for branches that are freshly dead that show few or no outward signs of infestation. You can slice into the bark with a knife to look for evidence of larval tunnels—in general those of longhorned beetles will be clean, while those of jewel beetles will be filled with fine sawdust-like frass that the larva packs behind it as it tunnels through the wood. Oftentimes the tunnels and larvae will be just under the bark, but in other cases they may be deeper in the wood. Broken branches hanging from live trees or old, declining trees exhibiting branch dieback seem to be especially attractive to wood-boring beetles, while dead branches laying on the ground underneath a tree are not always productive (unless they have been recently cut).

One way to target specific beetles species is to selectively cut targeted plant species during late winter, allow the cut branches to remain in situ for a full season, and then retrieve them the following winter or early spring. These almost always produce well. Doing this will also give you a chance to learn how to recognize young, infested wood at a time that is perfect for retrieval, which you can then use in searching for wood from other tree species in the area that you may not have had a chance to cut. I have cut and collected branches ranging from small twigs only ¼” diameter to tree trunks 16″ in diameter. Different species prefer different sizes and parts of the plant, but in general I’ve had the best luck with branches measuring 1–3″ diameter.

Once you retrieve the wood, you will need to cut it into lengths that fit into the container of your choice (a small chain saw makes this much easier and quicker). In the field I bundle the wood with twine and use pink flagging tape to record the locality/date identification code using a permanent marker. I then stack the bundles in my vehicle for transport back home. Choice of container is important, because moisture management is the biggest obstacle to rearing from dead wood—too much moisture results in mold, while too little can lead to desiccation. Both conditions can result in mortality of the larvae or unemerged adults. In my rearing setup, I use fiber drums ranging from 10-G to 50-G in size (I accumulated them from the dumpster where I work—mostly fiber drums used as shipping containers for bulk powders). Fiber drums are ideal because they not only breath moisture but are sturdy and may be conveniently stacked. Cardboard boxes also work as long as they are sturdy enough and care is taken to seal over cracks with duct tape. Avoid using plastic containers such as 5-G pickle buckets unless you are willing to cut ventilation holes and hot-glue fine mesh over them. While breathable containers usually mitigate problems with too much moisture, desiccation can still be a problem. To manage this, remove wood from containers sometime later in the summer (after most emergence has subsided), lay it out on a flat surface such as a driveway, and hose it down real good. Once the wood has dried sufficiently it can be placed back in the container; however, make sure the wood is completely dry or this will result in a flush of mold. I generally also wet down wood again in late winter or early spring, since I tend to hold wood batches through two full seasons.

I like to check containers every 7–15 days during spring and summer. Some people cut a hole in the side of the container that leads into a clear jar or vial—the idea being that daylight will attract newly emerged adults and facilitate their collection. I’ve tried this and was disappointed in the results—some of the beetles ended up in the vial, but many also never found their way to the vial and ended up dying in the container, only to be found later when I eventually opened it up. This is especially true for cerambycids, many of which are nocturnal and thus probably not attracted to daylight to begin with. My preference is to open up the container each time so that I can check the condition of the wood and look for evidence of larval activity (freshly ejected frass on the branches and floor of the container). I like to give the container a ‘rap’ on the floor to dislodge adults from the branches on which they are sitting, then dump the container contents onto an elevated surface where I can search over the branches and through the debris carefully so as not to miss any small or dead specimens. I use racks of 4-dram vials with tissue packed inside each and a paper label stuck on top of its polypropylene-lined cap as miniature killing jars. Specimens from a single container are placed in a vial with a few drops of ethyl acetate, and I write the container number and emergence date range on the cap label. Specimens will keep in this manner until they are ready to be mounted weeks or months (or even years) later. If the vial dries out, a few drops of ethyl acetate and a few drops of water followed by sitting overnight is usually enough to relax the specimens fully (the water relaxes the specimens, and the ethyl acetate prevents mold if they need to sit for a while longer).

I store my containers in an unheated garage that is exposed to average outdoor temperatures but probably does not experience the extreme high and low temperatures that are experienced outdoors. In the past I wondered if I needed more heat for wood collected in the desert southwest, but I never came up with a method of exposing the containers to the sun without also having to protect them from the rain. Metal or plastic containers might have eliminated this problem, but then breathability would again become an issue. I would also be concerned about having direct sun shining on the containers and causing excessive heat buildup inside the bucket that could kill the beetles within them. Now, however, considering the success that I’ve had in rearing beetles from wood collected across the desert southwest—from Brownsville, Texas to Jacumba, California, this seems not to be a big issue.

If anybody else has tips for rearing wood-boring beetles that they can offer, I would love to hear from you.

REFERENCES:

Bellamy, C. L. 2002. The Mastogenius Solier, 1849 of North America (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Polycestinae: Haplostethini). Zootaxa 110:1–12 [abstract].

Lingafelter, S. W. 2007. Illustrated Key to the Longhorned Woodboring Beetles of the Eastern United States. Special Publication No. 3. The Coleopterists Society, North Potomac, Maryland, 206 pp. [description].

MacRae, T. C. 2003. Agrilus (s. str.) betulanigrae MacRae (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilini), a new species from North America, with comments on subgeneric placement and a key to the otiosus species-group in North America. Zootaxa 380:1–9 [pdf].

Nelson, G. H., G. C. Walters, Jr., R. D. Haines, & C. L. Bellamy.  2008.  A Catalogue and Bibliography of the Buprestoidea of American North of Mexico.  Special Publication No. 4. The Coleopterists Society, North Potomac, Maryland, 274 pp. [description].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014

Skulls on my desk

Even though I am a scientist working in an organization with hundreds of other scientists, I can lay claim to one true uniquity—I am the only one I know of that has a skull on their desk! Six, actually. They’re not real (sadly), but their impact on most first-time visitors to my office is no less amusing. Typically the first question is, “What are those?”—to which my standard reply is, “Those are former colleagues with which I’ve had problems.” Maybe that is a little mean, but it usually gets a laugh (sometimes nervous). Hey, if somebody doesn’t understand my sense of humor, they’ll have to learn sooner or later.

¹ In anthropology, most of these would actually be called “crania” (skull minus associated mandible) rather than skulls. We can be less pedantic here.

I am, of course, talking about my collection of hominid fossil replicas. Yes, I am an entomologist, but I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with paleoanthropology and human evolution. Actually, I think my broad interest in multiple disciplines is rather typical of those who are drawn to the natural sciences, so it surprises me that there aren’t more scientists where I work with a skull on their desk. After all, this was a common practice among ancient scholars as a reminder of their mortality. My reasons for having skulls on my desk are less philosophical—I just like having replicas of some of paleoanthropology’s most important fossil hominid finds. They are icons of a subject that couldn’t be more relevent—our own origins. Just as nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in human society makes sense except in the light of human evolution. The skulls are a reminder of not just who we are, but why we are.


Taung 1, “Taung Child”

Taung 1, "Taung Child"

Taung 1, “Taung Child” (Australopithecus africanus) | Taung, Republic of South Africa, 2.8 mya

The “Taung Child” is thought to be a 3-year-old child representing Australopithecus africanus (which means “southern ape of Africa”). Discovered in 1924, it was the first hominid fossil discovered that, while definitely not a member of our own genus, could still be argued as somewhat human. Nevertheless, it would take another 20 years—once other, adult, specimens were discovered in southern Africa—before A. africanus would begin gaining acceptance in the scientific community.

The significance of the Taung Child was that it provided fossilized evidence of upright, two-legged (bipedal) walking much earlier than expected. Up to that time, it was believed that humans began to walk upright only after they had developed a large brain. Robert Broom, upon arriving in South Africa in 1936 and seeing the Taung Child for the first time, is said to have knelt at the edge of the table and exclaimed, “I behold my ancestor!” It is now thought that A. africanus represents southern African descendents of A. afarensis from east Africa but is not in the direct lineage leading to modern humans. Nevertheless, the Taung Child remains an iconic hominid fossil, especially given the suspected circumstances of its death—attacked and killed by an eagle! Puncture marks at the bottom of its eye sockets resemble those made by the talons and beak of modern eagles, which are known to attack monkeys in Africa today. The skull was also found among eggshells and a mixture of bones from other small animals that could have been preyed upon and show damage resembling that made by modern eagles.


STS 5, “Mrs. Ples”

Australopithecus africanus, "Mrs. Ples," STS-5, Sterkfontein, South Africa, 2.5 mya

STS 5, “Mrs. Ples” (Australopithecus africanus) | Sterkfontein, Republic of South Africa, 2.5–2.1 mya

Discovered in 1948 by Robert Broom, this nearly complete adult A. africanus cranium actually served to convince scientists of the time that the Taung Child was not just a baby chimpanzee whose ape-like features had not yet developed. Broom named the new fossil Plesianthropus transvaalensis and hypothesized that she was a middle-aged female—thus the nickname, “Mrs. Ples.” The fossil is now regarded to represent the same species as the Taung Child, differing chiefly in the adult character of prognathous (forward projecting) jaws, and is also now thought to have belonged to a sub-adult male.

I had the good fortune to see the actual fossil in person on a private tour of the Transvaal Museum’s “Broom Room” during a trip to South Africa in 1999. I wrote about that experience in a guest post at Christopher Taylor’s Catalogue of Organisms titled, Origins – A Day in the Broom Room as follows:

As Dr. Fourie held the cranium for me to look at, I noticed the fossil was about 3.5 feet off the floor—about the presumed height for the species. I suddenly saw Mrs. Ples standing before me in life – a living, breathing being, not an animal, yet not quite human either. I may not have used Broom’s precise words, but I whispered something along those lines to myself as the slender, hairy virtual creature stood before me. The Museum Gift Shop was selling plaster replicas of Mrs. Ples, one of which now sits on the desk in my office. I think about that experience at the Transvaal Museum almost everytime I look at it.


SK 48, “Paranthropus crassidens

SK 48 "Paranthropus crassidens" (Paranthropus robustus) | Swartkrans, South Africa, 1.8-2.0 mya

SK 48, “Paranthropus crassidens” (Paranthropus robustus) | Swartkrans, Republic of South Africa, 1.8–1.5 mya

While Robert Broom was excavating in South Africa, he recognized that the fossils he was finding represented two distinct morphs—a “gracile” form now encompassed by A. africanus, and a more “robust” form that he described in 1938 as Paranthropus robustus. SK 48, discovered by Broom and Robinson in 1952, was until recently the most complete example of this latter type. The term “robust” refers not to the size of the body, but rather the characters of the skull that include a prominent sagittal crest and robust zygomatics and mandible with large, thickly enameled post-canine dentition. These features provide extra space for chewing muscles and larger molar surfaces—adaptations linked to a powerful chewing complex designed for processing tough, fibrous foods. Paranthropus robustus appears to have been a dead end taxon, being the last of the robust australopithecines and having no apparent descendants. It seems to have been a contemporary of early representatives of the genus Homo—our genus—in southern Africa (tempting speculation on what might have happened to them!).

This was another of the fossils I saw first hand during my visit to the Broom Room, and the plaster replica purchased from the Museum gift shop sits alongside Mrs. Ples on the desk in my office.


OH 5, “Nutcracker Man”/”Zinj”

KNM OH5, "Nutcracker Man" (Paranthropus boisei) | Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.8 mya

OH 5, “Nutcracker Man”/”Zinj” (Paranthropus boisei) | Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.8 mya

When it comes to fossil hominids, Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania is easily among the most famous of sites, and of the fossils found at Olduvai Gorge, OH 5 “Nutcracker Man” is easily the most famous. Discovered in 1959 by Mary Leakey, it was originally classified as a new genus and species, Zinjanthropus boisei, but is now accepted as a member of the genus Paranthropus. It is thought to represent a derived, “hyper-robust” species descended from P. aethiopicus (see “The Black Skull” below), which lived in east Africa a million years earlier. Like its congeneric contemporary in southern Africa (P. robustus), Nutcracker Man appears to have died out with no living descendents.

The discovery of Nutcracker Man (sometimes called “Zinj” in reference to its original genus name) brought the “robust” morph, typified until then by P. robustus, to a new level of robusticity: wide, outward-flaring zygomatic arches that projected forward of the nasal opening to form a dished-shape face, a large sagittal crest atop the skull, and a massive lower jaw. These traits no doubt allowed plenty of room and attachment for the huge chewing muscles needed for its diet. If features such as this aren’t enough to justify a nickname like Nutcracker Man, surely the megadont cheek teeth—up to four times the size of our own—will seal the deal!


KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull”

KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull” (Paranthropus aethiopicus) | West Turkana, Kenya, 2.5 mya

KNM-WT 17000, “The Black Skull” (Paranthropus aethiopicus) | West Turkana, Kenya, 2.5 mya

The “Black Skull” is actually one of the more recent hominid fossil finds. Discovered in 1985 by Alan Walker, it was originally classified as Paranthropus boisei—the same species as “Nutcracker Man.” However, the Black Skull is nearly a million years older than Nutcracker Man and apparently shares some characters with the even older Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy” being its most famous member). All three of these forms lived in east Africa, though at different times, and the Black Skull was eventually deemed to represent yet another distinct taxon—Paranthropus aethiopicus (described some time earlier, but from only a partial lower jaw). It is the earliest known member of the genus, and the Black Skull remains the only known skull representing the species. Paranthropus aethiopicus likely gave rise to the later P. boisei in east Africa and P. robustus in southern Africa.

The Black Skull isn’t as robust as Nutcracker Man, but it is my favorite robust australopithecine fossil because… it’s BLACK! How cool. Actually the skull started out white, just like any other bone prior to fossilization, and developed its dramatic dark blue-black color as a result of the manganese-rich soil in which it spent the past two and a half million years.


KNM-WT 15000 “Turkana/Nariokotome Boy”

KNM-WT 15000, "Nariokotome/Turkana Boy" (Homo ergaster) | Nariokotome, West Turkana, Kenya, 1.6 mya

KNM-WT 15000, “Turkana/Nariokotome Boy” (Homo ergaster) | Nariokotome, West Turkana, Kenya, 1.6 mya

The “Turkana Boy” skull is actually part of a remarkably complete skeleton excavated in 1984 by Richard Leakey and colleagues. Some regard Turkana Boy as a representative of Homo erectus, the first human to migrate out of Africa into Eurasia, while others consider the African populations to represent the distinct taxon, H. ergaster. One of paleoanthropology’s most contentious topics is whether modern humans evolved only from H. ergaster in Africa (the second “out-of-Africa”) or locally from H. erectus populations (including H. ergaster) throughout the Old World (“multiregionalism”). Molecular data seems to favor the former, but the latter has passionate adherents. Of all the skulls sitting on my desk, this one alone can be regarded as a possible near-direct ancestor!

Turkana Boy is not only remarkable by the completeness of its skull, but also the astonishing 90% coverage of the complete skeleton that results when bilateral symmetry is used to fill missing bone. Such completeness is extraordinarily rare among fossil hominids, and it has provided a wealth of information about the body size, shape, and growth rates of H. ergaster. The skeleton is thought to have belonged to a boy 12 or 13 years of age, measuring 5’3″ tall and weighing 106 lbs at the time of death. Interestingly, the pelvis reveals a greater ability to run than modern humans, while other bones more closely resemble those of Australopithecus. The long, slender body seems to be an adaptation to the hot, dry climate that existed in Africa.


Thanks to all who participated in ID Challenge #22. I have to admit how surprised and impressed I am about how many of you seem to be as interested in and up to date on human evolution as I. Congratulations to perennial BitB challenge master Ben Coulter, who takes the win with 63 pts. Dennis Haines (61 pts) and Mike Baker (60 pts) complete the podium, and honorable mentions go to Sam Heads (58 pts) and tandemtrekking (57 pts).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

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

Oklahoma Collecting Trip iReport

I’m back home after my week-long collecting trip to western Oklahoma, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolous I can only describe it as one of the most successful collecting trips I’ve ever had. Seriously! These kinds of trips don’t happen all that often for a variety of reasons—timing is off, rains didn’t happen, weather was uncooperative, etc. etc. Once in a while, though, everything comes together, and this was one of those times. The trip was also a return to my roots so to speak—I’ve been rather distracted in recent years with tiger beetles, but jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) and, to a lesser extent longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae), are really the primary focus of my taxonomic studies. It had been several years since I’d had a good “jewel beetle trip,” so that was the focus of this trip. In planning the trip, I recalled seeing jewel beetle workings in several woody plant species in the same area during last September’s trip, and the occurrence of May rains seemed to bode well for my early June timing.

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

My instincts proved to be justified—in seven days in the field I collected an estimated 1000–1500 specimens representing at least two dozen species of Buprestidae and a dozen or more Cerambycidae. More important than the numbers, I collected a number of species in good series that I have either not or only rarely collected before, and in fact the second beetle that I collected turned out to be a new state record! Of course, I also brought along my full-sized camera and associated gear and photographed many of the species that I collected. I will feature these photos in future posts, but for this post I thought it might be fun to give a high level view of the trip illustrated only with photos taken with my iPhone (which I also carry religiously in the field with me). The iPhone is great for quick snaps of scenery and miscellaneous plants and animals for which I don’t feel like breaking out the big camera, or as a prelude to the big camera for something I’d like to share right away on Facebook. Moreover, there are some types of photos (landscapes and wide-angles) that iPhones actually do quite well (as long as there is sufficient light!).

Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Atop the main mesa at Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

My first destination was Gloss Mountains State Park (Major Co.), a stunning system of gypsum-capped, red-clay mesas. I’ve already found a number of rare tiger beetles here such as Cylindera celeripes (Swift Tiger Beetle), Amblycheila cylindriformis (Great Plains Giant Tiger Beetle) and Dromochorus pruinina (Frosted Dromo Tiger Beetle), and in the past two falls I’ve found two interesting jewel beetle records: Chrysobothris octocola as a new state record, and Acmaeodera macra as a northern range extension. On this trip, I started out beating the mesquite  (Prosopis glandulosa) and immediately got the longhorned beetle Plionoma suturalis—a new state record! They were super abundant on the mesquite, and I collected several dozen specimens along with numerous C. octocola as well. I then moved over to the red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which was showing a high incidence of branch dieback, and collected nice series of several buprestids, including what I believe to be Chrysobothis ignicollis and C. texanus. Up on top of the mesa there are small stands of hackberry (Celtis laevigata) and soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), both of which are very good hosts for Buprestidae. Not much was on the soapberry, but I beat large series of several Buprestidae from the hackberry, including what I believe to be Chrysobothris caddo and—the real prize—Paratyndaris prosopis! My old friend C. celeripes was also out in abundance, so I collected a series to add to my previous vouchers from this site. Back down below, I marveled at a juvenile western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) in the area where I found some more A. cylindriformis larval burrows. Daylight ran out before I could dig them up, and after 11 hours in the field I was exhausted, so I returned the next morning and got one 1st- and two 3rd-instar larvae and went back up on top of the mesa and beat several more P. prosopis from the hackberry.

Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

My second stop was at Alabaster Cavern State Park (Woodward Co.), where C. celeripes was again abundant on the gypsum-clay exposures surrounding an impressive gorge thought to be a collapsed cave complex. I focused on beating hackberry because of the success with buprestids on this plant at Gloss Mountains SP, and although they were not quite as abundant here as at Gloss Mountains I still managed to end up with good series of C. caddo and several species of Agrilus. Because I had spent the morning at Gloss Mountains, I had only a partial day to explore Alabaster Caverns and, still getting used to the weight of the camera bag on my back, decided to leave the big camera in the car. This was a mistake, as I encountered my first ever bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) and had to settle for iPhone photos of this species—the photo above being the best of the bunch. An approaching storm put an end to my second day after another 10 hours in the field, and I drove an hour to Woodward.

Moneilema sp. on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Moneilema sp. on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Cavern State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

My third day started out at nearby Boiling Springs State Park, a riparian oasis on sandy alluvium alongside the nearby Cimarron River. The woodlands are dominated by hackberry and American elm, and although a few buprestids were beaten from hackberry and honey locust (Gleditisia triacanthos), the numbers and diversity were not enough to hold my interest in the spot. After lunch, I decided to return to Alabaster Caverns SP and explore some other areas I had not had a chance to explore during the previous partial day. It’s a good thing that I did, as I ended up finding a nice population of longhorned cactus beetles in the genus Moneilema associated with prickly pear cactus (Opuntia phaecantha). I collected a nice series of adults and also learned a few lessons in how to photograph these beetles on their viciously protective host plants. The photo above gives a taste of what will come in the photos that I took with the big camera. After eight hours in the field and darkness falling, I drove two hours to Forgan in Beaver Co.

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Day 4 in the field started out cold and ominous, having stormed heavily during the previous night and with thick clouds still hanging in the sky. I feared the day might be a wash but decided to venture to Beaver Dunes State Park anyway and take my chances (beating can still be productive even in cold weather as long as the foliage is not wet). It’s a good thing that I did, as the buprestids were as numerous as I’ve ever seen them. The park’s central feature is a system of barren sand dunes that are frequented by ORV enthusiasts and surrounded by hackberry woodlands. The park also has a reservoir and campground, around which are growing a number of cottonwoods (Populus deltoides).

Hackberry Bend Campground, Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

Hackberry Bend Campground, Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

These hackberrys and cottonwoods proved to be extraordinarily productive. On the former I collected large series of several species of Chrysobothris and Agrilus, and while I collected fewer Buprestidae on the latter, these included Agrilus quadriguttatus and Poecilonota cyanipes! The latter species I had never collected until last year (from Cerceris fumipennis wasps), and beating the lower branches of the declining cottonwoods produced a series of about a dozen specimens. I also got one specimen on black willow (Salix nigra), along with a few Chrysobothris sp. and what I take to be Agrilus politus. Also in a low branch of one of the cottonwoods was a bird’s nest with a single egg that, according to Facebook comments, either represents the American Robin or a Gray Catbird. (I returned the next day and saw two eggs in the same nest.)

American Robin or Gray Catbird nest w/ egg | Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

American Robin or Gray Catbird nest w/ egg | Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

As the day drew to a close, I found two interesting longhorned beetle species at the edge of the dunes: one large, powdery gray Tetraopes sp. on milkweed (Asclepias sp.), and huge numbers of Batyle ignicollis evidently perched on the yellow spiked inflorescence of an as yet undetermined plant. I have seen this species on many occasions, but always in low numbers, yet here were literally hundreds of individuals on the plants, all having assumed a characteristic pose on the inflorescence suggesting that they had bedded down for the night. I only spent eight hours in the field on this day because of the late start, and as darkness approached I began the two-hour drive to Boise City.

Black Mesa landscape

Sculpted sandstone landscape in the vicinity of Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

The final two days in the field were supposed to be spent exploring the area around Black Mesa in the extreme northwest corner of Oklahoma, and another hour of driving was needed to get to the area from Boise City. I first went to Black Mesa State Park, and while the landscape was stunning (see above) the area was extremely dry. I feared the collecting would not be at all productive in this area but wanted to give the area a good effort before making a call. As I approached the entrance to the park, I saw a jeep parked by the side of the road with a license plate that read “Schinia,” which I recognized as a genus of noctuid moths that are very popular with collectors. I pulled over and talked to the driver, who was indeed a lepidopterist from Denver and had just arrived himself. We talked and exchanged contact information, and learning of my interest in beetles he directed me to a small stand of Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii) and one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) on a sculpted sandstone escarpment not far from the park. I found the spot, and although I beat three Chrysobothris sp. from the first juniper tree that I whacked, another hour of beating produced only one more beetle from the juniper and nothing from the oak. I returned to the spot where we had met and encountered him again on his way out! We stopped and chatted again and found a few specimens of what I take to be Typocerus confluens on the yellow asters, but by then I was having my doubts about staying in the area. I told him I was going to check out a ravine in the park and then decide.

Petrified forest | Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

Petrified forest | Black Mesa State Park, Cimarron Co., Oklahoma

The petrified forest ended up being the only interesting thing I found in the ravine—the area was so dry that I think even the real trees were almost petrified! At any rate, it was clear that I was not going to have much success in this area. I looked at my watch, knowing that it would take three hours to drive back to Beaver Dunes, and estimated that if I left now I could get in about three hours of collecting at Beaver Dunes where I’d had so much success the previous day. Thus, I did what I rarely do on a collecting trip—drive during the afternoon!

Beaver Dune

The main dune at Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma.

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the dune

A chunky grasshopper nymph inhabiting the main dune.

I arrived back at Beaver Dunes with several hours of daylight still remaining, so I decided to take a look around the main dunes before heading towards the woody plants. I’ve actually visited Beaver Dunes previously, on the tail end of a fall tiger beetle trip in 2011. At that time I had seen only the rather common and widespread species Cicindela formosa (Big Sand Tiger Beetle) and C. scutellaris (Festive Tiger Beetle), but I thought there could still be a chance to see the much less common C. lengi (Blowout Tiger Beetle). Early June, however, is a little late to see the spring tigers, and in fact I saw only a single C. formosa. Nevertheless, I find dune habitats irresistible—alien habitats occupied by strange plants and animals, and I spent a bit of time exploring the main dune before heading back towards where I had collected so many Buprestidae the previous day.

Low water levels in the reservoir at Beaver Dunes are a result of three years of drought.

Low water levels in the reservoir at Beaver Dunes are a result of three years of drought.

Western Oklahoma, like many parts of the central U.S., has suffered rather severe drought conditions for the past several years. This was evident not only in the large amount of branch dieback seen in the woody vegetation of the area (and probably a contributor to my success at collecting Buprestidae) but also the very low water level in the park reservoir. In the photo above the small cottonwood saplings in the foreground and large cottonwood trees in the left background indicate the normal water level. Cottonwoods, of course, like to keep their feet wet, and the trees around this reservoir—left high and dry by the drought—have responded with major branch dieback and lots of subsequent adventitious sprouting at the bases of the main branches. It was from this adventitious growth that I had beaten most of the Poecilonota cyanipes that I collected the previous day, so I repeated the cottonwood circuit in the hopes of collecting more. Not only did I collect more, but I collected twice as many as the previous day, so I ended up with a very nice series of more than two dozen individuals of the species from the two days collecting. I also did a little more beating of the hackberry trees which had produced well the previous day and collected several more Chrysobothris caddoC. purpureovittata, and Agrilus spp. such as A. leconteiA. paracelti, and perhaps others. When I arrived I was unsure whether I would stay here the following day, but eventually I decided I had sampled the area about as well as I could and that I would go back to the Gloss Mountains for my last day in Oklahoma. Thus, as the day began to wane I began hiking back to the car and spent the next two hours driving back to Woodward to spend the night.

Steep slope below the main mesa | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Steep slope below the main mesa | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Echinocereus sp. | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Echinocereus sp. | Gloss Mountains State Park, Major Co., Oklahoma

Arriving at the Gloss Mountains the next morning was like coming home! I’ve spent so much time at this place and found so many great insects, yet every time I come here I find something new. Today, however, my goals were more modest—I wanted to improve on my series of Paratyndaris prosopis and Chrysobothris texanus, so I focused most of my time beating the hackberry and juniper on top of the mesa and continued beating the juniper down below as well. Success! I collected four more Paratyndaris off of the hackberry, but the C. texanus were far more abundant on this day than they were earlier in the week—I probably got another two dozen individuals of this species. Of course, I also got distracted taking photographs of a number of things, so the day went far more quickly than I realized. I wanted to leave around 6 pm and get in about three hours of driving so that I would have time to make it into Missouri the next morning and have a nice chunk of time to collect before finishing the drive and arriving home on Saturday night. It was actually closer to 7:30 pm before I hit the road, the reason for the delay being the subject of a future post (I will say that BioQuip’s extendable net handle comes in handy for much more than collecting tiger beetles!).

Dolomite glades | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Dolomite glades | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Long Creek | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

Long Creek | Hercules Glades Wilderness, Taney Co., Missouri

For my last day of collecting, I decided to stop by at one of my favorite spots in the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri—Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Mark Twain National Forest. I’ve been to this place a number of times over the years, but in recent years my visits have usually been late in the season to look for the always thrilling to see Cicindelidia obsoleta vulturina (Prairie Tiger Beetle). It had actually been about 25 years since I’d visited these glades during the spring, and because of the success I’d had collecting in Oklahoma I was really optimistic that I would find the same here. Sadly (and inexplicably), insect activity was very low, and it didn’t take long for this to become apparent as branch after branch that I beat along the trail through the dry-mesic forest down to Long Creek yielded nothing. By the time I got to the creek I still had not collected a single beetle. A consolation prize was found along the creek, as beating the ninebark (Physocarpos opulifolius) produced a few specimens of the pretty little Dicerca pugionata, and a couple more consolation prizes were found further up the trail approaching the main glade when I saw a Cylindera unipunctata (One-spotted Tiger Beetle) run across the trail and then beat a single Agrilus fuscipennis from a small persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) tree at the edge of the glades. It had been about 25 years since I last collected the latter species, so I was very happy to see it, but no more were seen despite beating every persimmon tree that I saw during the rest of the day. At the end of the day, I had hiked seven miles and collected only six beetles—a rather inauspicious ending to what was otherwise a wonderfully successful trip.

A rare ''selfie''

The author takes a rare ”selfie” at Gloss Mountains State Park.

Arriving back at the car at the end of the day on the last day of an extended collecting trip is always a little depressing—despite the vagaries of travel, cheap hotel beds, meals on the go, and general exhaustion, I’m never happier than I am when I am in the field. Still, the success that I’d had during this trip did much to ease my depression, and arriving home late that night and seeing my girls again (who waited up for me!) finished off any remaining depression.

© Ted C. MacRae 2013