North America’s most “extreme” jewel beetle

When Chuck Bellamy passed away two years ago, he left behind a remarkable legacy of study on the family Buprestidae (jewel beetles) that includes not only his insect collection—surely one of the best in the world in terms of representation of genera and species in the family—but also his extensive library of primary literature. Both of these assets, built over a period of decades, are now housed in the California State Collection of Arthropods at the CDFA Plant Pest Diagnostics Laboratory in Sacramento, California. Chuck, however, was not just a jewel beetle collector and taxonomist—he was also a skilled photographer, focusing (pun intended) largely, though not exclusively, on his beloved jewel beetles. Digital cameras were still far in the future when Chuck began photographing these beetles, and as a result the bulk of his photographic legacy exists in the form of 35mm slides. I was the fortunate recipient of his slide collection, numbering in the thousands, and have been slowly scanning his slides into digital format with the goal to eventually make them available to the larger community of buprestid workers. Some of his best photos were published in a memorial issue of The Coleopterists Bulletin (2014, volume 68, number 1), and I featured a few additional photos in this post shortly before the publication of that issue. There remain slides, however, of many additional species, a large number of which surely represent the only field photographs of live adults. As I convert his slides to digital format, I hope to share some of the more interesting here.

For the first of these featured species, I can think of no better one than Lepismadora algodones. This tiny little jewel beetle is the only representative of the genus, which was not even known until 1986 when it was discovered by Mimi & Rob Velten in the Algodones Sand Hills of southeastern California. The species and genus were described the following year (Velten & Bellamy 1987), making Lepismadora the most recently discovered new genus of jewel beetle in the U.S. The recentness of its discovery is remarkable, since southern California in general and the Algodones Sand Dunes in particular were thought to have been relatively well collected at the time of the beetle’s discovery. Also remarkable is the distant relationship of this monotypic genus to any other North American species; its closest known relative being the genus Eudiadora—known only from Argentina (Bellamy 1991).

Lepismadora algodones

Lepismadora algodones Velten, in Velten & Bellamy, 1987 (Coleoptera: Buprestidae)

Even more remarkable, however, are its highly localized distribution and extreme habitat. The entire type series (one male holotype and 159 paratypes) and all individuals collected since its description have been found only in a single old canal on the west side of the Algodones dunes. Summer temperatures in the dunes routinely reach in excess of 110°F and are even higher in the depressed canal where the beetles are found. Astoundingly, the adults are active only during the hottest hours of the day (ca. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), during which time they can be found on the flowers and foliage of fanleaf crinklematTiquilia plicata (Boraginaceae). The reason for the beetle’s highly restricted distribution is a mystery, as the plant on which the beetles are found is rather widespread across the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. A final mystery is the still unknown larval host plant—it could be T. plicata, but it could just as likely be something completely different.

Algodones Dunes

Old canal on the west side of Algodones Sand Hills, type locality of Lepismadora algodones.

I moved to California a few years after the species was described and, of course, soon set out to find it for myself. I had driven to southern California from my home in Sacramento to meet the late Gayle Nelson (another important mentor of mine), who told me where to find the beetle and what the host plant looked like but also warned me about the extreme heat I would encounter. His advice was to hike the canal until I had half a bottle of water, then turn around and hike back. Mindful of his advice, I arrived at the dunes the next day around mid-morning, filled my water bottle and hydrated myself as much as I could, and climbed down into the canal. The heat was overpowering—more so down in the canal and far beyond anything I had ever experienced to that point, and after quickly recognizing the host plants I began tapping their tiny, prostrate branches over my beating sheet and looking for the beetles. I went as far as I could down the canal, perhaps 200 yards, before I had to turn around, but I had not yet seen any beetles and was starting to lose hope. I continued to tap host plants on the way back, though by then not really expecting to see anything. About halfway back I saw something laying on the ground a short distance ahead. As I approached I saw it was a small plastic vial with a white cap, and when I picked it up I saw inside a dried out T. plicata twig and a dead adult beetle—unmistakably L. algodones! While excited to have found the species, it was at the same time a bit unsatisfying for the specimen to be one that somebody else had collected before me and then lost (for all I know, it could have been Chuck Bellamy, considering that the beetle was apparently intended to be kept alive, possibly for photography!). I slipped the vial into my pocket, started tapping branches again, and found three additional adults in the immediate vicinity of where I had found the vial (and doing much to soothe my dissatisfaction with the first specimen). Those would be the only specimens that I would find that day, though I would succeed in finding another individual on a subsequent visit two years later.

REFERENCES:

Bellamy, C. L. 1991. A revision of the genus Eudiadora Obenberger (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 93(2):409-419 [Biodiversity Heritage Library].

Velten, R. K. & C. L. Bellamy. 1987. A new genus and species of Coroebini Bedel from southern California with a discussion of its relationships in the tribe (Coleoptera, Buprestidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 41(1):185–192 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2015

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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16 Responses to North America’s most “extreme” jewel beetle

  1. Susan Walter says:

    How extraordinary to find someone else’s specimen like that!

  2. Adrian Ruicanescu says:

    Many species of Buprestids stay grouped. My keyword in collecting Bups is: Found one, look around carefully. Mostly it works. I have found more than 25 specimens per day of Lamprodila decipiens on only 2 black alders (Alnus glutinosa) and no one on the nearby alders.

    • Yes, that does often seem to be the case.

      Of course, there are also the times when you find something on the very first branch that you whack, and then 3 more hours of beating in the area doesn’t produce a single additional specimen!🙂

  3. rcannon992 says:

    Sounds like this beetle might have some interesting heat and or drought tolerance adaptations!

    • I presume the dense covering of white, flattened setae is one of those adaptions. But those temperatures – I can’t imagine how it keeps the proteins in its body from denaturing!

  4. Anonymous says:

    That’s a new one…finding someone else’s jar — with a specimen inside! 🙂

  5. Cosmin Manci says:

    great … and great side story, thanks for sharing !!!!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Nice find!

  7. Adrian Ruicanescu says:

    I was so lucky once, when I lost a jar of insects and I “restored” my way and found it yiipeeeeee!!!!

  8. Pingback: New Spanish beetle species discovered | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  9. Stephane says:

    Hi Ted, very interesting. It is always amazing to read that kind of stories. Thanks to share with us. Stephane

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