Sexual Profiles

I recently happened upon these photographs of Habroscelimorpha severa (Saltmarsh Tiger Beetle), taken in early August last year at the terminus of Florida’s famous “Road to Nowhere“. I hadn’t thought to post them afterwards because I’d already shown a photograph of this species taken at the same spot during the previous year’s visit. I should have, as they are much better photographs than that initial attempt. Blame part of the first attempt on the fact that I was only in my third month of insect macrophotography, but the biggest reason for the improvement was because I’d gotten a little smarter and learned to use a blacklight to bring these extremely wary beetles to me at night rather than try to chase after them during the day. Still, I don’t get much enjoyment out of posting photos for no other reason than to post photos, so they’ve sat on my hard drive for the past year and a half. In looking at them again, however, I realized that the first and second, profiles of a female and a male, respectively, make for a nice comparison of the secondary sexual characters exhibited by adults of this species.

Habroscelimorpha severa (female) | Levy Co., Florida

Females exhibit fewer sexual characters than males, the main one being the presence of grooves on each side at the back of the pronotum (neck). These grooves function during mating, at which time the male grasps the female by the pronotum with his mandibles. This helps to provide a more secure grip for the male to prevent him from being dislodged during mating and subsequent mate guarding. The grooves themselves are not obvious in the photo, but the lack of setae (hairs) within them is, giving the female a less “hairy” look than the male. As with most insects, females also are more robust—their abdomens larger to make room for egg-making machinery, although in this and other tiger beetle species the difference is not that obvious.

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Habroscelimorpha severa (male) | Levy Co., Florida

Males are immediately recognizable by several respects. In addition to the smaller abdomen and “hairier” pronotum lacking lateral grooves, male tiger beetles in most of the “higher” genera exhibit brush-like pads on the undersides of the front tarsi (feet). The function of these pads is not completely clear, but prevailing opinion is that they somehow aid in gripping the female during mating. I’m not sure I buy into this—males do sometimes hold onto females with their front legs during mating, but how these pads improve grip escapes me. Further, it is my experience that males actually spend more time during mating and mate guarding with their front legs outstretched to each side. I’ve also noticed that males are reluctant to release females even when danger approaches (even in the form of a giant insect macrophotographer). I’ve seen males tenaciously clinging to the female as she violently tries to shake him off and flee from my approach. It makes me think that perhaps the tarsal pads serve some tactile function as a final warning of impending danger to a grasping male, allowing him to not give up his female until absolutely necessary (hey, it’s an idea—if you have an alternative idea I’d love to hear it). There is more, however—look at that big head!

Habroscelimorpha severa (male) | Levy Co., Florida

Actually,  the male’s head is no larger than the female’s, but the proportionately longer mandibles give the male a distinctly “big-headed” look.  In contrast, the labrum (upper lip) is shorter than the female’s (making the mandibles look longer still). Both of these characters are, again, related to the habit of grasping the female pronotum, with the longer mandibles allowing a more secure grip of the female pronotum and the shorter labrum adding even more functional length to the mandibles (I can also imagine that this might have some effect on choice of prey by males versus females). The male mandibles also have a greater amount of white coloration at their bases—this might simply be a function of the relatively larger size of the mandibles, but given that males of many species exhibit more white overall on both the mandibles and the labrum (the latter of which is usually smaller), it seems more logical to me that the white coloration serves as a visual cue for potential mate recognition.

“Hey baby, I like your grooves!”

“Yeah, well your white lips aren’t so bad either.”

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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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.
Aside | This entry was posted in Cicindelidae, Coleoptera and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sexual Profiles

  1. Jon Quist says:

    I observed with Lucanus mazama, the length of the tibia of the males is about equal length from the front corners of female elytra to the meso trochanters. I noticed when I saw a male actually grappling his tarsi around them while mating, for stability, of course. Also, the male would grip the females pronotum with his mandibles, this observation is more likely documented, though.

    • In the case of these and most other tigers, the male protarsi are obviously considerably longer, plus they lack the robust claws that Lucanus males have. In my recent post on Cicindelidia ocellata rectilatera, I show a photo of a mating pair actually in the act of copulation, and the male still has his front legs extended outward. That seems to be the normal position – I hardly ever see the front legs actually grasping the female.

      Another thought that occurred to me today is that maybe the leg position has more to do with detecting competing males that could try to usurpe the female rather than predator detection.

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