Return to Nowhere

Back to some hard-core, field natural history.  Two years ago, on my virgin experience at collecting tiger beetles in Florida, I visited a spot called “Road to Nowhere”¹ at the suggestion of North American Tiger Beetle Master Dave Brzoska.  He said as many as 6–10 species can be seen there if the season is right, although my early August timing might be a tad late.  Despite having only a few hours from late afternoon to dusk to explore the area, I came close with the following five species: Cicindela trifasciata ascendens (Ascendent Tiger Beetle), Habroscelimorpha severa (Saltmarsh Tiger Beetle), Eunota togata togata (White-cloaked Tiger Beetle), Ellipsoptera marginata (Margined Tiger Beetle) and E. hamata lacerata (Gulf Beach Tiger Beetle) (see Tiger Beetles at Florida’s “Road to Nowhere”).

¹ For those of you who haven’t heard of the “Road to Nowhere,” it ranks as one of the top tiger beetle “hot spots” in the country (perhaps second only to Arizona’s famous Wilcox Playa).  According to Doug Taron at Gossamer Tapestry, the site—an expansive coastal salt marsh and mud flat along the isolated central Gulf Coast of Florida—was built some decades ago at the behest of corrupt state officials as a landing strip for small airplanes running drugs into this country.


One species I did not see on that trip is Habroscelimorpha striga (Elusive Tiger Beetle).  The common name is well deserved—the species is restricted to salt marshes, mud flats, and openings in coastal pine forest along the west and northeast coasts of Florida and South Carolina, and apparently nobody has ever seen it during the day (Pearson et al. 2006)!  Despite this, the Road to Nowhere is one place where the species can be seen somewhat reliably through its attraction to ultraviolet “blacklights.”  With this in mind, I began my 48-hour tiger beetle blitz during last August’s family vacation to Florida by timing my departure from St. Petersburg so that I arrived at the Road to Nowhere as dusk was falling—just in time to setup the lights, sit back with a beer, and wait for H. striga to cover the sheet!  The plan had a few kinks—I got a little bit of a late start, so by the time I got to Steinhatchee it was already getting dark.  Because of this, I missed one of the turns (my memory isn’t as good as it used to be) and got lost.  By the time I finally got my bearings, it was pitch black as I drove the 11-mile length of that lonely road through sand scrub and coastal marsh to a point where the road just simply stops.  Although the area is no longer used much for drug running, I still felt somewhat vulnerable as I setup the blacklight at the edge of the expansive salt mud flat.  There was one additional kink—I had forgotten to bring my copy of Pearson et al. (2006), any North American tiger beetle aficionado’s “Bible.”  Having only my memory of reading about the species to draw on, I hoped that I would recognize it if I saw it, or least recognize it as something different from the other species I expected to see there.


I’ve heard stories about the area being filled with tiger beetle collectors from all over the country with their blacklights and bucket traps, with someone yelling “striga!” every hour or so. However, I was the only person there that night. I hoped I wasn’t too late, as August is at the back end of the known adult activity period. Very quickly three other species, E. hamata lacerata, E. marginata and H. severa (the latter similar to H. striga, but much more abundant) began literally swarming all over the sheet and ground beneath. It was exciting at first, as I’d never encountered these (or any other tiger beetles) so abundantly at blacklights. In time, however, I satisfied my appetite for specimens and actually started becoming rather annoyed at their abundance—as if they might be “chasing away” the rare H. striga that was attracted to the light before I had a chance to see it.


Eventually, however, it happened. I spotted a somewhat different looking tiger beetle, but instead of yelling “striga!” my reaction was “What is that?” It was dark(ish), and I noted a subsutural row of green punctures on each elytron—”Is that punctulata?” I picked it up and looked at it closely, still thinking maybe punctulata but not sure. It was shinier, and a little bigger, and I noted the presence of marginal white spots at the middle and rear of the elytra. “No, that’s not punctulata… Is it striga? It must be striga! Yeah, it’s striga!” I dug down into the deep recesses of my memory and recalled that H. striga, indeed, was a darkish species, although I could not recall anything about the row of punctures. I finally decided that it really couldn’t be anything else but H. striga, an ID arrived at by process of elimination rather than recognition. Looking back, I feel a little cheated—I never got my “striga!” moment, that instant of sudden jubilation.  Instead, it was just a slow, creeping realization of what I had (listen to me—complaining about finding H. striga!).

I would actually find about a half dozen individuals of H. striga that night. The first one, per standard procedure, went live into a vial as a backup for studio photos if I didn’t manage to get any in the field.  That proved unnecessary, however, as I was able to photograph the two subsequent individuals shown in this post. It was not just H. striga that kept me busy with the camera, but feeding, perching, and trophy-bearing individuals of E. hamata lacerata and some other species that I have still to discuss as well. It was non-stop action from the time I setup the lights, interrupted only briefly at one point as I nervously watched a set of car headlights approach from the distance, stop a few hundred yards up the road, and then slowly turn around and disappear. By the time I finally took a moment to look at my watch it was already 1 a.m.! Soaking wet from the nighttime humidity, dirty from laying on the salty, muddy ground, and exhausted from the 4 hour drive and non-stop action after my arrival, I finally packed up the lights and began the drive back to civilization—praying that I would be able to find a motel without too much delay!

REFERENCE:

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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14 Responses to Return to Nowhere

  1. James C. Trager says:

    Great natural history story-telling, Ted (as usual)!
    Wow, tiger beetles at black lights – Never seen that!
    It is claimed by some that one should never travel without one’s Bible, but it seems you did okay without!
    Oh yeah, and interesting how misguided human activity and resultant disturbance had such a positive influence on at least this little part of nature!

    Okay, enough exclamations. I note that you beetley folk use a lot of subspecies names. These have become very passe’ in ant taxonomy, due to the dificulty (impossibility) of properly defining them (species are hard enough). Care to comment on this?

    • It seems members of the genera Ellipsoptera and Habroscelimorpha by and large are attracted to lights. We don’t have many of these in Missouri, so it is a rather strange concept for us.

      Use of subspecies is actually a tiger beetle folk thing rather than beetle folk in general. I had my own prejudices about the seemingly inordinate overuse of subspecific nomenclature in tiger beetles when I got interested in them, but I understand and accept the reasons for their use – primarily because it provides a convenient shorthand for discussing the vast polytopism that characterizes the group. It’s not perfect, and it probably, in many cases, does not actually fit the classic definition of allopatrically isolated populations with some degree of genetic divergence. However, to enforce that strict definition would make it much more difficult to talk about the numerous, distinctive populations that can be found within any given species.

      For buprestids and cerambycids, it’s the opposite – subspecies are increasingly being elevated to species (in particular for the so-called “host” subspecies that were so popular in the 20th century), or sunk (usually because they are based on some color form that has no geographical basis).

  2. George Sims says:

    Ted,
    I celebrated my 60th birthday on Friday, and treated myself to Arnett’s Volume II. My eldest daughter asked what I wanted for a gift, so I asked for Ratcliffe’s book on the scarabs of Nebraska.

    Daughter says, “You live in MISSOURI!!! What the ^#%#^ do you want with a NEBRASKA beetle book?” I told her, “It’ll have to do until Ted MacRae writes one for Misouri.”

  3. Ken Allen says:

    Hi Ted,

    Actually, I have seen the severa more times during the day than at night. This includes the road to nowhere. I went up there two week-ands ago. The flats were very dry and I had no luck with togata, which I had wanted to try for better photos.

  4. John Christensen says:

    Maybe the smugglers are using the landing strip. Did you check underneath the bodies of the tigers for little bags of white powder? I hear that the drug smugglers are getting more and more inventive. If they can build million-dollar submarines, I do not see why they can’t build mini-drones, although bees with their pollen baskets would offer much better camouflage.

    My best memories are the times I come across sandy patches of ground and thinking “I bet that this is a good spot to find tiger beetles,” and shortly afterwards finding one or more.

    • I think the reputation of Road to Nowhere as a tiger beetle hot spot has chased away all the smugglers. :)

      How often I exclaim as I’m driving along, “Oh, that there looks like tiger beetle land!”

  5. Jon says:

    What amazing creatures! Recently I have been currupted by groundbeetles, so hopefully, if all goes well, my collecting buddies and i will be taking a pitfall trapping trip throughout southern AZ, NM then up through Colorado then back home to northern utah. Too many things out there that aren’t always caught by the eye!

  6. Zach says:

    Hi Ted, I can imaging how much hard work you put into finding these amazing species. Your hard work is appreciated. My son did a report on the Tiger Beetle and received an A thanks to your amazing photos. Thanks :)

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