“Trying” to photograph whirligig beetles

Nobody figured out exactly what I was doing in the photograph shown in the previous post (does anybody now see the whirligig beetles in the lower left corner of the photo?), but I sure enjoyed the guesses.  Several people alluded to dropping the camera or falling into the water, while others mentioned my heretofore unrevealed contortionist abilities.  However, Morgan Jackson‘s tale of trying to photograph Platypsyllus castoris has it all – rarely photographed species and the inordinate lengths we go through to get the shot.

Of course, whirligig beetles (family Gyrinidae) are much more commonly encountered than Platypsyllus castoris, but they can’t be any easier to photograph.  I spotted them as Rich and I balanced our way across a massive sycamore tree trunk while crossing the Black River during our early April hike of the lower Wappapello Section of the Ozark Trail.  I don’t know much more about whirligig beetles (or aquatic insects in general) than your average land-lubbin’ entomologist (in fact, I don’t think I’ve collected any since college systematics – yes, that long ago!), but for some reason I felt the need to try to photograph them.  Sure, the fallen tree provided a rare opportunity to get reasonably close to these very skittish insects without having to wade, but I think it was actually just the challenge of trying to photograph something in constant zigzagging motion that appealed to me.  Rich’s warnings that I would drop my camera were not enough to dissuade me, and after reaching the other side I ditched the backpack and tiptoed out with just my camera.

It seems like I’ve said this often in recent months, but these are my new hardest insect to photograph.  Not only are there the usual difficulties of framing and focusing a subject that is always in motion, but that motion is fast, erratic, and unpredictable, making tracking through the lens an extraordinary challenge.  Moreover, balancing precariously on a debris pile in the middle of the river strains the body and adds an element of danger (yes, I would be in deep doodoo if I dropped that camera).  I kept my eye on one particular individual that was swimming nearest to me, and after watching for a bit I saw that it was making a relatively predictable circuit that passed fairly close to me each time around.  I started trying to follow it through the lens and snap shots as it passed by – most of them turned out like this (actually, most of them turned out worse than this):

However, with each pass I got better, and I started getting shots with at least part of the beetle in focus.  So intent I was on what I was doing that I didn’t even know Rich had taken the photograph of me in the previous post until he showed it to me afterwards (he said he wanted to document the camera drop!).  Eventually I got this shot:

It’s far from a perfect photo – I had to adjust the levels because I hadn’t figured out the best lighting to use for something on the water’s surface, and the specular highlights from the flash on the forward elytron are rather extreme.  But the entire beetle is in focus, and we can make a reasonable guess as to its identity.  There are only two genera of whirligig beetles in Missouri – Dineutus and Gyrinus – and the large size (~12 mm in length) and hidden scutellum clearly identify this individual as something in the former genus.  Moreover, the rounded elytral apices (seen on other individuals as well) narrow it down even further to just a few possible species.  Unfortunately, they are distinguished primarily by ventral coloration; however, the bad first photo clearly does show dark legs, suggesting this may be D. ciliatus and not the orange-legged D. emarginatus.  I don’t even really care what species it is (did you ever think you’d hear me say that?), I’m just happy to have gotten a reasonably good photograph of an insect that surely few people have photographed well.

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.
This entry was posted in Coleoptera, Gyrinidae and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Trying” to photograph whirligig beetles

  1. Bob Abela says:

    I get just dizzy *thinking* about photographing a whirligig. I suppose one would have to be a research entomologist to consider such a daunting challenge. Good luck with that 🙂

  2. weirdbuglady says:

    I’ve not yet dared to try to photograph whirligigs up close – you got a great shot at the end!
    Sometimes I do see them hanging out on my pond rather still, barely moving, in the mornings… perhaps sometime I’ll try to sneak up on them.

  3. Maybe not quite as cool as a beaver parasite, but great shots either way! Patience paid off in the end!

  4. Snail says:

    Difficult enough under controlled conditions, but almost impossible in the field. I’m sure I would have taken a dip!

  5. jason says:

    And here I thought you were looking for your contact lens. But I couldn’t agree more about the difficulty of photographing these guys. Most of my attempts look like the first photo, only much worse.

    • Same here – I just didn’t quit until got the one that I could show.

      I like Dick Nelson’s comment to the previous post:

      I’ve been collecting beetles all morning. I’m sure this is where I put the beer so it would be cold.

  6. Brady Richards says:

    Sorry to comment on an older post like this, but I’ve been perusing your posts and was delighted to find a this one on my favorite group, the Gyrinidae. First of all, don’t forget about the third genus from Missouri: Gyretes. Babin and Alarie (2004) officially reported the genus from Missouri. When I surveyed the gyrinids of Arkansas for my M.S. thesis umpteen years ago, I got Gyretes from 64 of the 75 counties. I have no doubt it is common in Missouri as well.

    As for your pictures, Dineutus ciliatus (Forsberg) is the identity. If you look at the first picture, you can see the vitta on the beetle’s left side. D. ciliatus is the only North American species with vittae.

    I’m enjoying the blog and your great photos and looking forward to more of the same.

    • Hi Brady – comments on old posts are always welcome, especially when they contain added info to supplement that in the post. I did not know about Gyretes, so now you’ve given me the hankering to go out and find it.

      Thanks for the species ID – good to know I was on the right track.

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