Alkali Tiger Beetle

Eunota togata globicollis - Salt Plains NWR, Oklahoma

I haven’t written much about my early October trip to Oklahoma, where I had hoped to confirm a hunch that the gorgeous Cicindela pulchra (Beautiful Tiger Beetle) would be found in the red clay/gypsum hill habitats of Woodward and Major Counties (the same place where I had found the much rarer Cylindera celeripes the previous June).  Unfortunately, a sudden cold snap and overcast skies conspired against me for the duration of that short, 5-day trip, reducing tiger beetle activity to near zero and sending me back to Missouri with little to show for my efforts — save a scorpion, a torpid Cicindela splendida, and some very beautiful ladie’s-tresses orchids in peak bloom.  I did have one moderately successful day, however, when I returned to Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Oklahoma, a place where I observed seven species of tiger beetles during my June trip.  An eighth species that I did not see on that trip, but which I had observed in previous years, was my goal this time, and despite the cold temperatures and cloudy skies I was fortunate to find several individuals of Eunota togata globicollis.  Occurring primarily on saline flats in the central and southern Great Plain, this subspecies was called the Alkali Tiger Beetle¹ by Erwin and Pearson (2008), who reserved for the nominate form (found in salt marshes and tidal flats along the Gulf Coast) the more descriptive name White-cloaked Tiger Beetle².  A third subspecies, E. togata fascinans (Salt Flat Tiger Beetle) is restricted to salt flats in central New Mexico and west Texas (Pearson et al. 2006) (you may remember this subspecies from my habitat partitioning post last month).

¹ In reality, I have come to consider the term ‘alkali’ as a bit of a misnomer, as it is saline soils specifically — not just those with high pH (alkaline) — that the species is fond of. Moreover, there are many species of tiger beetles in addition to this one that are associated with saline soils.

² Okay, I might as well just get all this off my chest. Pearson et al. (2006) gave common names to each species of tiger beetle in the U.S., but not subspecies. I think most non-taxonomists probably consider this a good thing, although it is not without its problems (some species already had multiple common names applied to them, forcing choices that are sure not to please everyone). Erwin and Pearson (2008) took this further and came up with common names for all of the subspecies as well, and like any good taxonomist they steadfastly applied existing common names only to nominate forms. Eunota togata, however, is an example where the original common name would have been better applied to one of the non-nominate subspecies. The species epithet togata means “cloaked” (being derived from the Latin word toga — a reference to the broad white band running along the elytral margins). Each of the two non-nominate forms are distinguished by the white band being more broadly expanded (indeed, almost entirely covering the elytra in subspecies fascinans), yet it is the nominate subspecies — the least “cloaked” of the three — that retains the original common name. A silly argument I suppose, but if we start applying the “prinicple of priority” to common names in the same manner as scientific names, then what have we gained? Of course, I am of the opinion that most insect groups are too diverse and their taxonomy still too unstable to warrant a rigid system of “official” common names. Is it really any easier to learn White-cloaked Tiger Beetle than Eunota togata? How about Mount Ashland Night-stalking Tiger Beetle instead of Omus cazieri? And this is not even considering what happens when category-level shifts occur. For example, the genus Tetracha was formerly called the Big-headed Tiger Beetles; however, its former subgenera were recently elevated to genus level. Erwin and Pearson, accordingly, applied the common name to the entire subtribe containing Tetracha and its relatives and applied a new common name, Metallic Tiger Beetles, to the new, more limited concept of Tetracha. Thus, in an ironic case of common name instability despite no change in scientific name, the Virginia Big-headed Tiger beetle (Tetracha virginica) became the Virginia Metallic Tiger Beetle. Are your eyes bugging yet? Common names may be appropriate for higher vertebrates, but can they really be used effectively for beetles and other insect groups where the increasing use of molecular tools is sure to result in additional, perhaps radical, shifts in taxonomy? There — I said it, and I feel a lot better!

This species is restricted to saline flats in the central/southern Great Plains.

Of the eight tiger beetle species that I’ve now observed at Salt Plains NWR, half of them (Cicindela fulgida, C. nevadica knausii, E. togata globicollis, and Habroscelimorpha circumpicta johnsonii) are true saline habitat specialists.  One of the other four species (Cicindela tranquebarica kirbyi) is also fond of saline habitats but also occurs commonly on dry, sandy soils as well, and two show a high affiinity for nearly any moist (Cicindela repanda) or moist to dry (Cicindela punctulata) soils with little regard for salinity.  Only Cicindela formosa, a denizen of dry, deep sands seems a little out of its element on the moist, salty mud at Salt Plains NWR — perhaps the few individuals I’ve observed here are incidental visitors, mistaking the white, barren expanses of salt-encrusted soil for the dry sand the species prefers during disperal searches.  This again brings up the question of habitat partitioning for competition avoidance among tiger beetle species sharing the same habitat.  Eunota togata globicollis is active during the spring and fall and, thus, temporally isolated from C. nevadica knausii and H. circumpicta johnsonii (both summer-active species).  The other saline specialist at Salt Plains NWR (C. fulgida) is active during the same seasons as E. togata globicollis; however, in my observations that species prefers the sparsely-vegetated zone at the edge of the saline flats, while E. togata globicollis prefers to stay out in the more open areas.  These observations mirror those of Melius (2010) for E. togata fascinans and the other seven species he noted in the Laguna del Perro area of New Mexico, and of Willis (1967), who recorded as many as 11 sympatric tiger beetle species in saline habitats in the central U.S.

Saline flats at Salt Plains NWR are home to eight species of tiger beetles.

Microhabitat selection and seasonal occurrence are not the only isolating mechanisms that can minimize interspecific competition among the different tiger beetle species at Salt Plains NWR.  Cicindela tranquebarica kirbyi is also a spring/fall species and doesn’t appear to display a preference for open versus vegetated areas, potentially allowing it to compete directly with both E. togata globicollis and C. fulgida.  However, C. tranquebarica kirbyi is a decidely larger species, while the other two are smaller, and correlated with such differences in overall size is the size of their mandibles.  Mandibular size directly correlated to prey size in a number of tiger beetle species (Pearson and Mury 1979), thus providing another mechanism for avoiding competition between these three co-occurring species. 

Photo details:
Beetles: Canon 100mm macro lens w/ 68mm Kenco extension tubes on Canon EOS 50D (manual mode), ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/18-20, MT-24EX flash 1/4 power w/ Sto-Fen diffusers.
Landscapes: Canon 17-85mm zoom lens (22mm) on Canon EOS 50D (landscape mode), ISO 100, 1/100 sec, f/10, natural light.

REFERENCES:

Erwin, T. L. and D. L. Pearson. 2008. A Treatise on the Western Hemisphere Caraboidea (Coleoptera). Their classification, distributions, and ways of life. Volume II (Carabidae-Nebriiformes 2-Cicindelitae). Pensoft Series Faunistica 84. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, 400 pp.

Melius, D. A. 2009. Post-monsoonal Cicindela of the Laguna del Perro region of New Mexico. CICINDELA 41(4):81-89.

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 E. J. Mury. 1979. Character divergence and convergence among tiger beetles (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae). Ecology 60:557–566.

Willis, H. L.  1967.  Bionomics and zoogeography of tiger beetles of saline habitats in the central United States (Coleoptera: Cicindelidae).  The University of Kansas Science Bulletin 47(5):145-313.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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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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4 Responses to Alkali Tiger Beetle

  1. Hi Ted, your full-resolution images are fantastic. What a fascinating and handsome creature! The taxonomy issues are well beyond me, but I can appreciate the difficulty when dealing with so many subspecies.

    • Thank you, Amber. Tiger beetles such as this one with lots of white coloration are so much more spectacular as live individuals than dead specimens on a pin – it’s hard to keep the whites white!

  2. jason says:

    What a stunner! These photos are gorgeous, Ted. It’s especially interesting to me to better understand the habitat use and what I’m only now learning to be predictable species based on ground conditions (except for Cicindela punctulata, a species that makes me laugh because it’s as easy to find on sidewalks as it is on dirt–a true generalist!). This post is like a field guide to the flats. Seasonal, habitat specific, and even prey oriented when sharing space. Very cool.

    • Habitat partitioning has become for me one of the more interesting aspects of tiger beetles as I study them. I like groups such as this that so nicely illustrate more broadly-applicable ecological principles.

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