Photographing the Newly Rediscovered Cicindelidia floridana
August 11, 2011 21 Comments
When Brzoska et al. (2011) announced the rediscovery of Cicindelidia floridana last April (and also provided convincing evidence for considering it a full species), I could hardly contain my excitement. At a time when increasing numbers of species are being reported in decline or going extinct, the news that this small jewel of a beetle had somehow managed to survive in tiny chunks of remnant habitat (completely surrounded by the sprawling metropolis of Miami) after having not been seen for more than half a century and presumed extinct (Pearson et al. 2006) was cause for celebration. For me, the timing couldn’t have been better as I was already planning a visit to Florida later in the summer to spend a little time with my family and—of course—search for some of Florida’s several endemic tiger beetle species. The precise locations where C. floridana have been found have not been publicly disclosed (for obvious reasons), but when I contacted lead author Dave Brzoska and told him of my plans to be in Florida this summer and my interest in seeing the beetles, he graciously offered to take me to the sites himself. Expedition turned to party when Chris Wirth, author of the cicindelocentric blog Cicindela, made arrangements to fly down from Virginia and join Dave and I on our trip. This would be Chris’ second visit to see the beetles, having been one of the very lucky first few to see it after its rediscovery while assisting second author Barry Knisley on the initial surveys that were conducted. For me, it was a cicindelophile’s dream come true—a day in the field with Dave (whom I had not seen in more than 25 years), meeting Chris for the first time, and looking for and (hopefully) photographing one of North America’s rarest tiger beetles.
After a delightful evening looking at meticulously curated specimens in Dave’s astounding collection, the three of us left early the following morning from his home in Naples to make the 2½-hr drive to Miami. Temperatures in south Florida during early August can soar as the day progresses, and as they do the beetles—already flighty and difficult to observe—become even more so before eventually taking refuge under debris. We arrived at the first site right at mid-morning, at which time I was allowed to remove my blindfold (just kidding!). One of the features that distinguishes this species from C. scabrosa is its habitat—south Florida pine rockland as opposed to the more widespread peninsular sand pine scrub habitat frequented by C. scabrosa. Pine rockland is a fire-adapted community composed of an open canopy of south Florida slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa) and a diverse understory of cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto) and other shrubs. As I readied my camera gear, Dave told me to look for small exposures in the understory and then watch them for any sign of movement. The adult beetles, despite their brilliant coloration, are among the smallest tiger beetle species and are exceedingly difficult to detect amongst the vegetation and debris covering the soil. I could have just let Dave look for the beetle first while I tagged along and then let him “show” them to me, but I wanted to find them for myself, so I struck out on my own and started searching.
It wasn’t long before I heard Dave and Chris call out that they had seen one, and while the temptation was great to go over to where they were and look at what they had already found, I stayed the course and continued searching on my own. Finally, I saw one! It was gorgeous and brilliantly colored—much more copperish in appearance than I had expected (Dave later explained that this is something seen better in the live beetles and not so well in preserved specimens). Deciding how to approach an unfamiliar tiger beetle for photography is always a crap shoot—until one gets a feel for its behavior and the way it reacts to movement it is difficult to know precisely how to approach it. I had gone ahead and tempted fate by mounting my 65mm macro lens and its very short working distance, so I would need to draw on the entirely of my experience in photographing tiger beetles to figure out how to get close enough to these beetles to photograph them. I hadn’t even gotten down on my knees yet before the first adult took flight and disappeared before my eyes. Knowing what to look for now, I continued searching and found another adult after a short time—with the same result! Beetle after beetle appeared before me on the sparsely vegetated sand openings and then zipped away well before I had the camera in position. Finally, by about the 10th beetle that I saw I found one that seemed a little more cooperative (or maybe I had just finally learned how to move in on them). I carefully, slowly layed down on the ground and got the camera in position as the beetle skitted here and there, obliviously feeding on the occasional ant, then located it in the viewfinder and started firing off shot after shot. The two photos above represent my favorites from that series and well show not only the elytral sculpturing and flattened pronotal setae that distinguish both this species and C. scabrosa from the other members of the group (C. abdominalis and C. highlandensis), but also the bright greenish coloration, reduced elytral maculation, and lighter leg coloration that Brzoska et al. (2011) used as justification for elevation to a full species distinct from C. scabrosa.
After failing to get more shots of the next 10 or so adults that I found, I saw a male hop on top of a female and attempt to mate. I quickly got into position to photograph them, but just as I got them framed they uncoupled and ran their separate ways. I figured I had probably lost my only chance to photograph a mating pair, but shortly afterwards I encountered another couple that was already engaged. I saw them before they became disturbed and moved, and as a result I found it relatively (relatively!) easy to get in position and begin photographing without alarming them. Tiger beetles are often encountered coupled but not actively mating, as the males will often ‘mate guard’ a female for an extended period after mating to prevent other males from mating with her (in many beetles, the last male to mate with a female stands a greater chance of fertizilizing the eggs she lays) (Pearson and Vogler 2001). This couple, however, was actively engaged as evidenced by the exserted male genitalia firmly penetrating the female genital opening.
I watched the mating pair for a period of time and notice that at times the male held the female more tightly with his front legs, while at other times he held his front legs extended widely out to the sides. I have seen this same behavior in nearly every tiger beetle species in which I have observed mating pairs and have yet to find or intuit an explanation. The male has dense, brush-like pads on the undersides of the front tarsi, which presumably are used to aid in grasping the female during mating and may also possibly aid in signaling during courtship. Perhaps extending the legs to the sides is done at times when the female is not struggling to dislodge the male (itself an interesting subject), allowing them to serve a tactile function to better warn against intruding males.
All told we spent about 2½ hours at the site, and I estimate that I saw a total of approximately 30 beetles. Some may have been the same as those I had seen before, since I tended to focus my searches in three small areas of sandy exposures not too distant from each other. Chris and Dave each worked separate areas as well, also seeing a good number of beetles and suggesting that the population at this site, despite the limited extent, is quite good. Puddles of water on the road as we entered the site indicated that the site had received recent rains, which may have been at least partly responsible for the level of adult activity observed. We drove by additional pine rockland remnants in the vicinity before heading back to Naples, some of which are known to contain the beetle and others that still need additional survey to determine the presence of the beetle and its status. With an extent of suitable habitat that is among the smallest of all North American tiger beetles, I suspect that C. floridana will be a good candidate for listing on the Endangered Species List. It will be a second chance for the beetle—and for us to see if we will be able to muster the will to save a species once thought extinct from actually becoming so.
Congratulations to Ben Coulter, who returns to his winning form and takes this first round in the current BitB Challenge Session (#4) with 14 points. Dave Hubble takes 2nd with 12 points, while Mr. Phidippus and FlaPak tie for the final podium spot with 10 points each. Nine other participants tested their skills, and if you didn’t play, they’ve all now got the jump on you!
Brzoska, D., C. B. Knisley, and J. Slotten. 2011. Rediscovery of Cicindela scabrosa floridana Cartwright (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae) and its elevation to species level. Insecta Mundi 0162:1–7.
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.
Pearson, D. L. and A. P. Vogler. 2001. Tiger Beetles: The Evolution, Ecology, and Diversity of the Cicindelids. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., xiii + 333 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011