Big, black (and red), and beautiful!

While I may have already declared Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer) as North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle, any short list of top candidates for this title must also include the species Crossidius coralinus. Like most other members of this strictly North American genus, these gorgeous beetles emerge as adults during late August and September to feed on the profusion of yellow blooms put forth by their larval host plants, Ericameria nauseosa (gray rabbitbrush). Across the Great Basin and adjacent areas, the relatively large size, spectacularly long antennae, and stunning value contrast between red/black or orange/black beetles, yellow flowers, and blue skies combine to make the sight of C. coralinus a highlight on any fall insect collecting trip. If beauty alone isn’t enough, the species also exhibits an unusual level of polytopism across its range. Red in some areas (e.g., C. c. temprans), orange in others (e.g., C. c. monoensis), bigger or smaller, and varying degrees of development of the black areas that cover the basal edge and apical portion of the elytra, the species segregates into several described subspecies and many more unnamed but locally distinct populations. This post features photos of individuals from several populations that field-mate Jeff Huether and I encountered during last August’s Great Basin collecting trip.

Crossidius coralinus coralinus

Crossidius coralinus ssp. coralinus (male) | Montezuma Co., Colorado

Crossidius coralinus coralinus

Crossidius coralinus ssp. coralinus (female) | Montezuma Co., Colorado

One of the most impressive populations I’ve encountered is illustrated by the male and female individuals shown in the above photos, which were seen near the city of Cortez in southwestern Colorado. Linsley & Chemsak (1961) assigned specimens from this area to the nominate subspecies, characterizing them as “moderate-sized”; however, some of the individuals that we encountered at this site were truly gargantuan (exceeding 20 mm in length). Note how extensive the black areas are in these individuals, especially the female.

Crossidius coralinus jocosus (male) | Costilla Co., Colorado

Crossidius coralinus ssp. jocosus (female?) | Costilla Co., Colorado

Crossidius coralinus jocosus (female) | Costilla Co., Colorado

Crossidius coralinus ssp. jocosus (female) | Costilla Co., Colorado

On the other side of the state near Fort Garland (southeastern Colorado) we encountered a population that Linsley & Chemsak (1961) considered representative of the subspecies C. c. jocosus. In contrast to the larger size and extensive black markings of the nominotypical population we found near Cortez, individuals in this population were considerably smaller in size and exhibited less extensively developed black areas of the elytra. Their small size also made them a little harder to notice—perhaps that is the reason we found so few individuals (~7 total at several sites along Hwy 160). We did note also, however, that the gray rabbitbrush flowers seemed to be well past their prime, so perhaps an earlier appearance of the rains upon which plant flowering and beetle emergence rely had us on the tail end of their activity period.

Crossidius coralinus coralinus

Crossidius coralinus ssp.? (male) | San Juan Co., Utah

Crossidius coralinus coralinus

Crossidius coralinus ssp.? (female) | San Juan Co., Utah

Linsley & Chemsak (1961) noted several populations across middle and southern Utah, but the only one to which they assigned a name was C. c. coccineus in Washington Co. (southwestern Utah). While we didn’t visit Washington Co. on this trip, we did look for these beetles at several sites north of Monticello in San Juan Co. (southeastern part of the state). Geography would place this population close to nominotypical populations, and while the beetles in this population resembled them in size they clearly differed in the greatly reduced black areas of the elytra. Note the male especially, with the black area reduced to little more than a sutural stripe in the apical half of the elytra. Linsley & Chemsak (1961) related specimens collected just a few miles further south from ours to an unnamed population in adjacent Wayne Co. (near Hanksville), both of which seem to be close to C. c. coccineus due to their robust size and the reduced black elytral markings of the male.

Crossidius coralinus ssp. (female) | Nye Co., Nevada

Crossidius coralinus ssp.? (female) | Nye Co., Nevada

Crossidius coralinus is found commonly along the western edge of the Great Basin in the form of C. c. temprans. However, Linsley & Chemsak (1961) presented very few records of the species further east in Nevada. We stopped at several spots in central Nevada while traveling along Hwy 6, but despite an abundance of gray rabbitbrush stands in peak bloom we found but a single male and a single female, the latter shown in the above photograph. Geographically this female should be assignable to C. c. temprans, but the black area of the elytra is not nearly so expanded as is typical for that subspecies. The only record from central Nevada in Linsley & Chemsak (1961) is a single male from White Pine Co. (a little further to the east), but they related that specimen to an unnamed population near Marysvale in Piute Co., Utah of smaller size and with the black area of the elytra distinctly expanded in both sexes.

The author photographing insects on flower head of Ericameria nauseosus.

The author photographs insects on gray rabbitbrush in San Juan Co., Utah.

There are those who say “Subspecies, schmubspecies!” I concede they may be right for a large number of named subspecies, possibly including C. coralinus, and while the basin and range topology of the Great Basin and discontinuous distribution of host plants within that geography provide ideal conditions for the development of distinctive, geographically based populations, I suspect C. coralinus has sufficient mobility to allow gene flow across its range (with the possible exception of populations in California’s Central and Owens Valleys). Moreover, the inability of Linsley & Chemsak (1961) to segregate the central Great Basin populations into discrete taxonomic units suggests that the subspecies concept may not be applicable. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that distinctive, localized populations of this species do exist. Moreover, I hesitate to dismiss subspecies in problematic taxa such as C. coralinus, because doing so makes it easier to ignore variability and presume (possibly incorrectly) no geographic component. Variability is interesting and should be thoroughly evaluated to determine its basis regardless of its basis. Geographically based variability is especially interesting because it suggests the existence of distinct genetic traits that contribute to the genetic diversity of species. Such traits are valuable to protect, and the use of subspecies provides a convenient shorthand for referring to the populations that contain them in both taxonomic and conservation contexts.


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.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Pedantic Sunday: Blister beetles don’t suck

Nemognatha cribraria cribraria on flower head Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus | Millard Co., Utah

Nemognatha cribraria cribraria on flowers of Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus | Millard Co., Utah

The beetle featured in today’s photo is the blister beetle (family Meloidae), Nemognatha cribraria cribraria. The genus Nemognatha and its relatives in the subfamily Nemognathinae are distinctive due to the greatly elongated adult mouthparts that are modified for feeding on flowers. Specifically, parts of the maxillae, or second pair of mouthparts (behind the mandibles) are elongated to allow access to nectar in flowers with deep corollas, while the fairly standard-issue chewing mandibles are used for feeding on pollen. As pointed out by Enns (1956) in his revision of the North American members of the genus, the length of the maxillae seems to be related to the particular kind of flower preferred for feeding by the various nemognathine species, with species exhibiting longer maxillae adapted to feeding on flowers with deeper corollas. In the photo above, the elongated maxillae can be seen tucked underneath the adult and appear to be nearly half the length of the body—other species in the genus have the maxillae as long as the body, or in the case of a Mexican species (N. chrysomeloides) even longer than the body (Enns 1956).

The proboscis-like mouthparts of nemognathine blister beetles are often depicted in entomological texts as an amazing example of sucking mouthparts in Coleoptera, the vast majority of which possess strictly chewing mouthparts. Borrer et al. 1976, White 1983, Downie & Arnett 1996, and Pinto & Bologna 2002 all mention that the mouthparts are modified into an elongated proboscis for “sucking” nectar, and it has been suggested that nectar uptake occurs through a median food canal, formed by concavities on the inner surfaces when the two structures are locked together into a functional unit. However, Wilhemi & Krenn (2012) used scanning electron microscopy and micro computerized tomography to study the elongated mouthparts of three meloid genera: Nemognatha and Gnathium and Leptopalpus. They demonstrated that neither the elongated galeae of Nemognatha and Gnathium nor the elongated maxillary palpi of Leptopalpus formed a median food canal through which nectar is sucked. Furthermore, the filiform galeae of Nemognatha and Gnathium are densely covered with long bristles, suggesting that nectar uptake in these two genera is accomplished by capillary action along the bristles of the proboscis. In all three genera nectar transport is likely aided by musculature around the mouth.


Borrer, D. J., D. M. DeLong & C. A. Triplehorn. 1976. An Introduction to the Study of Insects, Fourth Edition. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, xii + 852 pp.

Downie, N. M. & R. H. Arnett, Jr. (Eds.). 1996. The Beetles of Northeastern North America. Volume II: Polyphaga: Series Bostrichiformia through Curculionoidea. The Sandhill Crane Press, Gainesville, Florida, x + 891–1721.

Enns, W. R. 1956. A revision of the genera Nemognatha, Zonitis, and Pseudozonitis (Coleoptera, Meloidae) in America north of Mexico, with a proposed new genus. The University of Kansas Science Bulletin 37, part 2(17):685–909 [Biodiversity Heritage Library].

Pinto, J. D. & M. A. Bologna. 2002. Chapter 111. Meloidae Gyllenhal 1810, pp. 522–529. In: R. H. Arnett, Jr., et al. (Eds.). American Beetles, Volume 2. CRC Press, Gainesville, xiv + 861 pp.

White, R. E. 1983. A Field Guide to the Beetles of North America. The Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, xii + 368 pp.

Wilhelmi, A. P. & H. W. Krenn. 2012. Elongated mouthparts of nectar-feeding Meloidae (Coleoptera). Zoomorphology [abstract].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

One-shot Wednesday: Hawk moths suck!

Hyles lineata nectaring at flowers of Ericameria nauseosa | San Juan Co., Utah

Hyles lineata nectaring at flowers of Ericameria nauseosa | San Juan Co., Utah

I admit it—I give short shrift to Lepidoptera compared to other groups of insects. This is not because I don’t think they deserve attention; they are a stunning group with an amazing suite of adaptations to life on earth. It’s just that they already receive a lot of attention from others, while so many other equally amazing groups of insects remain almost completely unknown and under-appreciated due to the sole fact that they are smaller and less conspicuous. I’m not anti-Lepidoptera; I’m just pro-other Insecta. Every now and then, however, I must give Lepidoptera their due, and since today is Wednesday it’s a good day to feature a hawk moth that I got but a single photograph of on my late August Great Basin collecting trip.

Hyles lineata is not a particularly rare insect—in fact, it is one of the most common and widespread species of hawk moth (family Sphingidae) in North America. What is hard to come by, however, is a good shot of an adult nectaring at a flower. While such shots abound, most feature busy backgrounds and blurred wings. My photo is no different. However, I am a coleopterist, and when I took this shot there were also longhorned beetles present on the same flowers—it could be considered remarkable that I even diverted my attention long enough to attempt a shot. Of course, hawk moths are amazing creatures that have independently arrived at the same flight abilities and feeding habits as the equally amazing but taxonomically distant hummingbirds with their ability to hover motionless while sipping nectar and beating their wings at blinding frequencies. With little time to practice and even less to optimize settings, I’m amazed that I even got an adequate photograph before the moth zipped off to another bush. Yes, hawk moths suck, and that is amazing!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Midget male meloid mates with mega mama

Pyrota bilineata on flowers of Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

Pyrota bilineata on flowers of Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

While looking for longhorned beetles in the genus Crossidius on flowers of yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) in southern Utah, I encountered one particular plant with numerous blister beetles (family Meloidae) on its blossoms. The orange color, two black pronotal spots, and distinctive black and white longitudinal elytral stripes leave no doubt as to its identity—Pyrota bilineata, but for good measure I sent a photo to my field mate for the trip, Jeff Huether, who confirmed its identity. I had seen singletons of this species at a few previous localities during the trip, so I was intrigued by the large numbers of individuals congregated on this single plant. As I looked at them, I saw one individual that appeared to have something stuck to the tip of its abdomen. I peered closer to get a better look and, to my surprise, discovered that it was actually a male in the act of mating. The male was tiny, only one-third the size of the female, representing about as extreme a size difference in mating insects as I’ve ever seen.

Pyrota bilineata on flowers of Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

A tiny male mates with the ginormous female.

Many species of blister beetles exhibit tremendous size variability, and a unique aspect of some species’ mating behavior is the cantharidin-packed spermatophore produced by males and transferred to females during mating. (Cantharidin is a toxic defensive compound that serves as a very effective deterrent to predation.) The spermatophores are energetically “expensive” to produce and are transferred to females during relatively short-lived mating aggregations. Mating in some species may take up to 24–48 hours, thus reducing the opportunities for multiple matings, and as a result males of long-mated species end up investing rather heavily in a limited number of females compared to males that mate more often. These features lead to size assortative mating (Alcock & Hanley 1987), with males showing a preference for larger females (that are presumably more fecund) and females preferring larger males to maximize the amount of cantharidin that they receive or to ensure receipt of a spermatophore large enough to fertilize their full complement of eggs. Medium-sized individuals, likewise, would choose the largest of the remaining individuals, leaving the smallest individuals to mate among themselves. Alcock & Hanley (1987) also note, however, that not all species of blister beetles exhibit size assortative mating, even though they form large mating aggregations and individuals vary greatly in size. I have not seen any reference to size assortative mating in Pyrota bilineata; however, this example seems to suggest that the behavior is not practiced by this species. This could be due to shorter mating times (leading to more opportunities for mating) or a range of variation in body size that is not sufficient to consistently favor the behavior.


Alcock, J. & N. F. Hadley. 1987. Assortative Mating by Size: A Comparison of Two Meloid Beetles (Coleoptera: Meloidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 60(1):41–50 [preview].

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


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

Cicindela albissima—The Coral Pink Sand Dunes Tiger Beetle

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Utah

The week had started off good, with three species of western sand dune endemic tiger beetles (Cicindela formosa gibsoni, C. scutellaris yampae, and C. arenicola) and a variety of sometimes spectacular Crossidius longhorned beeltes having been encountered.  Mid-week, however, had brought a lull in our success—the long drive to southwestern Idaho was not rewarded with finding C. waynei, endemic only to Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park, and an even longer drive was required to backtrack and then drop down to the southwestern corner of Utah in hopes of finding the equally rare and restricted C. albissima.  Had it not been for our continued success with different species and subspecies of Crossidius longhorns the drive might have felt like a lesson in futility.  Still, on a collecting trip a new day and new locality brings new hope, and anticipation grew as we passed through lodgepole pine forests on stunning black lava fields and wind-carved red sandstones on the final approach to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.

Colored pink by iron oxide minerals, the dunes are estimated at 10,000 to 15,000 years old.

Words cannot describe the stunningly spectacular landscape that unfolded before us as we entered the park.  The scenery alone makes Coral Pink Sand Dunes worthy, in my humble opinion, of National Park status, but it is C. albissima—occurring only on the park’s vivid pink dunes and nowhere else in the world—that makes this place truly special.  Precisely where in the park the beetle lives is a matter of public record, as Chris Wirth (author of the intermittent but highly focused blog Cicindela) and Randolph-Macon College Professor Emeritus Barry Knisley have produced a wonderfully detailed and well illustrated brochure about the beetle and its life history, population trends, and limiting factors.  What remained to be determined was whether the beetles would be active during the brief window of time available to look for it.  Cicindela albissima is a so-called “spring-fall” species in reference to the bimodal adult activity period, but activity in the fall is much less predictable than in the spring depending on moisture availability.  The day was perfect—temperatures in the 70s by mid-morning, only a light breeze, and a sharp, blue, cloudless sky.  All we could do was look.

Adult beetles were found on the northern edge of this dune. A majority were seen amongst sparse vegetation rather than barren areas.

It didn’t take long really to find them, as the adults were already out in encouragingly strong numbers. Of the several dozen adults we saw, all but one were seen atop the northern edge of one particular sparsely vegetated dune.  I suspect the larval burrows were at the bottom of the steep northern dune escarpment in the more stable wind-scoured sandstone clays that lay between individual dunes.  Vivid white and floating across the sand on long delicate legs, the elegance of their beauty was a stark contrast to the harshness of the surrounding landscape.  With a miniscule range of only 400 hectares, C. albissima is one of North America’s rarest tiger beetles, and I felt truly priviledged to join the small ranks of those who have seen this beetle alive in its native habitat and could appreciate the significance of the event.  Of course, the sense of accomplishment would not be complete unless I also succeeded in photographing the species in the field, and although the adults were quite wary and active, I was happy with several of the photos that I ended up with.  Similar to what I observed with C. arenicola, adults amongst the vegetation seemed slightly less skittish than those out in the open, so it was in the vegetated areas that I concentrated my efforts.  My only regret was not adding extension tubes to allow some real closeup portraiture, but the beetles seemed far too wary to have put up with the decrease in working distance that would have entailed.  At any rate, here are some of my favorites:

What the future holds for C. albissima remains unclear.  Designation of the beetle’s home range as a preserve (albeit tiny) would seem to offer long term protection, but a  large portion of this area is open to off-road vehicular traffic (although not a single one was seen during the time that we were there).  An even greater threat exists in the potential for extended drought affecting the entire population, and as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere the chance of impacts from unusual weather events only grows. I feel lucky to be among the few that have witnessed this beautiful species in nature, but I sincerely hope I am not among the last.

ORV tracks can be seen just outside the conservation area boundary

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Crossidius coralinus fulgidus

Crossidius coralinus fulgidus | Uintah Co., Utah

Tiger beetles may have been the primary focus of last week’s 9-day, 10-state, 4,700-mile collecting trip; however, they were not the only beetles I was hoping to see. Longhorned beetles (family Cerambycidae) of the genus Crossidius are unusual in the family because of their fall rather than spring/summer adult activity period, and they just happen to occur in dizzying variety throughout the Great Basin and surrounding mountainous areas. Larvae of all species are presumed to feed on the roots of perennial, shrubby, fall-blooming composites, primarily in the genera Chrysothamnus, Ericameria, Gutierezzia, and Haplopappus (Linsley and Chemsak 1961), with the adult activity period undoubtedly timed to allow congregation and mating on the late-season blooms of their host plants.  Only 13 species are currently recognized, but these are further divided into 37 subspecies and innumerable locally distinct populations.  Not having spent much time in the mountain west during the fall, this group has till now been poorly represented in my collection.

The species shown here, Crossidius coralinus fulgidus, was among the first of many that we encountered during our trip.¹  This population was seen near Vernal in northeastern Utah.  It was late in the day and the adults had settled for the night onto the flowers of their host plant, Ericamera nauseosa.  Flower-visiting longhorned beetles are notoriously frustrating subjects to photograph, as their constant movement and long legs and antennae make focus and composition difficult.  These beetles had essentially ceased activity, allowing me to carefully compose and focus the shot, and the low sun in the western sky provided a bright blue eastern sky to use as a colorfully contrasting background.  The photo above (the very long antennae identify it as a male) was taken hand-held with my Canon 100mm macro lens at ISO 400 and 1/60 sec to allow exposure of the sky and flash at an aperture of f/16 to illuminate the subject and achieve good depth of field.  My only criticism of this photo is the small amount of blur seen in the distal antennal segments.

¹ “We” refers to myself and Jeff Huether from Geneva, NY. Jeff is primarily interested in Meloidae but like me also has an interest in Cerambycidae. I was fortunate to have Jeff with me on this trip, as he has collected extensively throughout the Great Basin region and encountered nearly all of North America’s named species and subspecies of Crossidius. It is only because of his prior experience with this group that I was able to find this and several others that we saw during the trip.

ISO 100, 1/200 sec

ISO 400, 1/200 sec

ISO 400, 1/60 sec

Because the beetles were so calm, I spent some time with this female individual trying different settings to see their effect on background color, subject illumination, and detail.  All were taken hand-held using the same lens at f/16, with the left photo also using my “typical” settings of ISO 100 and 1/200 sec.  The background is very dark (in post-processing I might choose to make it black)—good for some subjects but not this one, and although the focus is good the lighting is rather harsh (I had to decrease highlights in post-processing much more than I normally like).  The center photo was taken with ISO increased to 400 and results in a much more pleasing, if still not very natural-looking sky background.  Focus remains good and the shorter flash duration needed reduces the amount of highlighting that needs post-processing adjustment.  Overall I like this photo the best except that the sky is not true in color.  The right photo is also at ISO 400 but uses a slower shutter speed (1/60 sec).  The sky in this photo is the most natural-looking, and as might be expected problems with flash highlights are minimal—it almost looks like a natural light photograph.  However, some amount of motion blur can be detected, especially in the antennae.  Perhaps intermediate shutter speeds (e.g. 1/120 sec) or slightly higher ISO might effectively deal with this while still allowing the truest colors.  What do you think?


Linsley, E. G. and 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):26–64, 3 color plates.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle – range map

Those of you on RSS feed might be interested in revisiting my previous post, Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle on ARKive.  I’ve added a Google screen shot to the post that shows a visual perspective of the entire range of Cicindela albissima within a tiny inset of the state of Utah.  The image provides a sobering reminder of just how vanishingly small the range of this species is.  If we, as a society, cannot take the steps required to ensure the survival of a beautiful little species such as this one – living on only the tiniest sliver of the lands under our stewardship, it speaks ill of our ability to do so for other species with much greater habitat requirements.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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