(continued from the previous post, Tiger Beetles Agree—It’s Hot in Florida!)
During the time that I explored the pine sandhill habitat at Withlacoochee State Forest in Citrus County, I kept close watch for any individuals amongst the dozens and dozens of Cicindela abdominalis (Eastern Pinebarrens Tiger Beetle) that I encountered that might exhibit the deeply pitted rather than smooth elytral surface that would identify it as the closely related Florida-endemic, Cicindela scabrosa (Scabrous Tiger Beetle). However, no such individuals would be seen (my first tiger beetle failure of the trip), and having already spent more than two hours at the site I decided it was time to move on the the “Road to Nowhere.”
The Road to Nowhere is a tidal marsh (also known as “coastal salt marsh”) near Steinhatchee in Dixie County (11.1 mi S Jena on Hwy 361). Although I was not aware of it prior to my August visit, this locality has achieved legendary status among tiger beetle enthusiasts because of the great number of species that can be seen there—as many as 6–10 species in the right season. Being a coastal wetland with moist, saline substrates, these would include such species as Cicindela trifasciata ascendens (Ascendent Tiger Beetle), Habroscelimorpha severa (Saltmarsh Tiger Beetle), the rarely collected H. striga (Elusive Tiger Beetle), and Eunota togata togata (White-cloaked Tiger Beetle), in addition to Ellipsoptera marginata (Margined Tiger Beetle) and E. hamata lacerata (Gulf Beach Tiger Beetle) which I had already found a few days earlier. As I found the highway leading to the spot and begain to drive its upper reaches, I looked longingly at the barren sand exposures along the sides of the road thinking that C. scabrosa, already known from the area (Choate 2003) must be there. However, it was well into the afternoon hours by then, and having already failed to find the species at Withlacoochee State Forest, I decided I should press on and see what the Road to Nowhere had to offer.
Almost immediately I began seeing tiger beetles. The first species I saw was C. trifasciata ascendens—rather common on areas of the flats close to the water’s edge. I recognized them instantly, as I had not only seen this species some years ago in south Texas, but also in southern Missouri as a lone vagrant (Brown and MacRae 2005). The dark brown dorsal coloration and thin, sinuous, S-shaped middle maculation are diagnostic for the species (Pearson et al. 2006). While it was by now late afternoon, the heat of the day had not yet begun to subside, and the beetles were extremely active and flighty. The difficulty in approaching them closely enough for photographs was exacerbated by the wet, muddy substrate and incessant drone of tenacious mosquitoes intent on breaching my invisible shield of DEET. Eventually, however, and only due to one decidedly more cooperative individual (above), I succeeded in getting a few shots with which I was happy.
Far less common than C. trifasciata ascendens, but equally skittish, was the impressive H. severa. I have also seen this species before in south Texas, though not in great numbers, and its shiny green surface with maculations reduced to small spots at the middle and rear of the elytra are unmistakealbe. It was the hardest to approach of the species I saw, and the above (only slightly cropped) photograph is as close as I was able to get (it is also the only photograph from the field session that was good enough and close enough to keep). This species tends to be most active in the morning and again in the evening, so most of my late-day efforts focused on this species—in fact, it was almost too dark to see by the time I finally quit my attempts at photographing the species. I brought back one live individual and took some “studio” photographs after I returned home, but I’m still not any happier with them than this lone field shot.
When I first saw the species represented by the individual in the above photograph, I had not a clue as to its identity—the dark elytra with only a marginal band was unlike anything I would have expected to see. Quickly thumbing through my “bible” (Pearson et al. 2006), I kept stopping at the plate containing Cicindela marginipennis (Cobblestone Tiger Beetle). I knew this was impossible, as that species is restricted to several disjunct cobblestone habitats further north. I collected the specimen for a voucher, keeping it alive for studio photographs, but it wasn’t long before I saw another similar-looking individual. I decided I must be overlooking something, so after getting photographs and collecting the specimen for another voucher I went back through Pearson. This time I focused only on the species that could possibly occur here, and realized that it was simply E. hamata lacerata with its normally diffuse middle elytral maculations highly reduced (traces of the middle band can be seen in the photograph).
Ellipsoptera marginata was the most abundant species at this location, and on this day I succeeded in getting a nice photograph of a female with her distinctively downbent elytral apices (see closeup photograph in this post). This species is very similar to E. hamata, with which it co-occurs along the Gulf Coast of peninsular Florida, but can be immediately recognized by the bent elytral apices (female) or distinct tooth on the underside of the right mandible (male). Both of these species are distinguished from all other species in the genus by the diffuse middle maculation of the elytra.
At least two additional species occur at this site, one of which (E. togata) I saw but a single individual of and was unable to photograph, and the other (H. striga) which I did not see. In fact, the Road to Nowhere is apparently “the” spot for finding the latter species, which occurs predominantly at night and is seen primarily by its attraction to ultraviolet lights. While I would have liked to stay after dark and setup lights to see this species, I had neither the time nor the equipment to do this. It may, after all, have been too late in the season anyway—since my visit I’ve heard stories from other tiger beetle aficionados who say the whole area can be filled with collectors from all over the country with their blacklights and bucket traps and someone yelling “striga!” every hour or so. No such scene developed during my visit, so I suspect my visit was on the late side of the season and that the 5 species I did see represents a pretty good day regardless. The long drive back to St. Petersburg marked the end of my tiger beetle exploits in Florida, at least for this year.
For another tiger beetling experience at Road to Nowhere, read this post by Doug Taron, who visited the site even later in the season (October). Although he didn’t see as many tiger beetles, he does provide some interesting details regarding the shady origins of this place.
Photo Details: Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec.
Habitat: Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (landscape, 66mm), f/9, natural light.
Insects (except E. marginata): Canon 100mm macro lens (manual), f/22–25, MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.
E. marginata: Canon MP-E 65mm 1–5X macro lens (manual), f/16, MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.
Brown, C. R. and T. C. MacRae. 2005. Occurrence of Cicindela (Cicindelidia) trifasciata ascendens (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) in Missouri. Cicindela 37(1–2):17–19.
Choate, P. M., Jr. 2003. A Field Guide and Identification Manual for Florida and Eastern U.S. Tiger Beetles. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 224 pp.
Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009