Maddening mutillid

Traumatomutilla graphica (Gerstaecker, 1874) | Parque Nacional Chaco, Argentina

During my stay in Corrientes, Argentina, I had two distinct biomes to explore—the relatively moist “Selva Paraguayense” to the east in Corrientes Province (a southern adjunct to the Atlantic Forest of southeastern Brazil, and home to the cryptic longhorned beetle that I featured in Desmiphora hirticollis: Crypsis or Mimicry?), and the drier “Gran Chaco” to the west, home of the insect featured in today’s post. Precious few remnants remain of the original Gran Chaco, which once covered nearly 1 million square kilometers in northern Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia and the best example of which can be found at Parque Nacional Chaco in north-central Argentina. I’ve already mentioned that conditions are typically quite dry by early April in northern Argentina, and this is especially true of Chaco Province, where droughts during the months of January through March are common. As a result, I didn’t expect to see much insect activity during my visit last month. For the most part this was true, but one insect I did see at several points along the trails through the park was this rather large velvet ant (order Hymenoptera, family Mutillidae). Not an ant, of course, but a true wasp, these insects must be treated with respect as they are capable of delivering a painful sting. This, combined with their ceaseless, erratic wanderings makes them incredibly difficult to photograph. However, with few other insects to see, I thought I would spend the time and effort to see if I could get some good field photographs of this very attractive species. I spent about half an hour attempting to photograph it by panning through the viewfinder while getting closer and adjusting the focus on the move, and then firing shots when I thought I might be close enough and had the individual more-or-less within the frame. This was wildly unsuccessful, as I had only a 3-ft wide path within which to work and had to constantly get up to block its escape into the adjacent vegetation. Moreover, it was exhausting! The constant moving and body contortions while in crouched or kneeling positions used muscles I didn’t even know I had (but was well aware of the following day by their soreness!). Out of the countless shots that I fired, these two photographs are the only ones that I consider worthy of posting—pretty good, but not great.

The distinctive color pattern is diagnostic for the species.

According to Kevin Williams (many thanks!), the distinctive color pattern readily identifies this individual as Traumatomutilla graphica (Gerstaecker, 1874). Nearly the size of our common eastern North American Dasymutilla occidentalis (a.k.a., cow killer), the bold, conspicuous patterning surely must serve as advertisement of its powerful defensive capabilities—I know I was deterred from trying to handle it. Kevin mentions it as a “great find!” and that the male of the species is still unknown, and I could find nothing about the biology of this species. However, mutillids in general are known to develop as external parasitoids of various wasps, bees, beetles and flies, the excessively long female ovipositor enabling piercing of host nest cells before injecting their powerful venom and placing the eggs (Hogue 1993).

REFERENCE:

Hogue, C. L. 1993. Latin American Insects and Entomology. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 536 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

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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7 Responses to Maddening mutillid

  1. scrapydo says:

    Very interesting. They look dangerous!

  2. Onibe says:

    something like ant and spider in one😉

  3. Chris Brown says:

    Greetings from Brazil. I agree 100%– photographing these guys is as tough as it gets. I don’t have a single pic of a female that I am happy with.

    • Brazil, huh? Hope you get a chance to do some photography.

      Everybody’s problem I suppose – cruising through BugGuide I see lots of “meh” photos but none that pop out and make me say, “Wow, nice photo!”

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