Monday, July 18, 2016


The year gap since my last post needs little explanation. Well, maybe two little explanations, names Peter, age 2, and Jonah, 9 weeks. Still, my field program has not gone totally dormant. I can't catch up on it all here and now, but the explorations of interesting habitats in the SE continue.

I've been particularly intrigued by the Coastal Plain, owing mainly to its recent recognition as an important 'Biodiversity Hotspot' (a designation reflecting a biota that is both unique and threatened). The lowcountry holds quite a surprising range of unusual habitats, which we can only assume (for the most part) will be reflected by a surprising number of unusual beetle species. This has in fact been increasingly demonstrated by a small number of researchers, and I've become more and more pulled out of the mountains, my more typical haunt.

This summer we're emphasizing the sandhills, and have made a couple of productive trips to interesting sandhill habitat. This region runs along the Fall Line, the innermost edge of ancient (Pliocene) shoreline incursion. These sandhills basically represent ancient beaches, and the sandy soils, now far from the coast, host a particularly large proportion of lowland endemic species. This is obvious in the floras, and in the vertebrate faunas, exemplified by the eastern gopher tortoise especially. Insect-wise, the area is producing a diversity of unique bees and grasshoppers, hosts the relict scarabaeoid Mycotrupes, and no doubt holds surprises in other groups.

In June Mike Ferro, Laura Vasquez-Velez and I made a trip to the Aiken Gopher Tortoise Preserve. This area hosts an active (though reintroduced) gopher tortoise population, of which we saw abundant evidence. We sifted litter, beat plants, netted some beautiful ponds, and ran lights. The material is mostly still in preparation, but it was a fantastic haul for a day and an evening. Here's a few pictures, before I go on to our more recent sandhill adventure.

Then, just this past week, Mike and I made a foray to another beautiful site, the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. The drill was pretty much the same: Arrive mid-afternoon, collect under the blazing sun, sweat profusely, eat dinner, rehydrate, run blacklights until midnight, then make the 3+ hour drive back to Clemson. Yes, these places are only marginally habitable during summer. Oh, and get some chigger bites (though nothing to rival last summer's infestation). Still, persistence pays off, and we had a great catch. Two of the highlights (neither photographed yet) were a pretty rare myrmecophilous aleocharine rove beetle, Ecitoxenidia (Taro Eldredge's picture here), and a histerid beetle new to South Carolina, only recently described by me and Alexey Tishechkin from Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida, Baconia stephani (our published picture here). So the pattern known for well known groups seems to hold - there's some interesting beetles in the sandhills! Here's a random sampling of pictures from Carolina Sandhills NWR.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Beetling the Hobcaw

As I’ve mentioned a couple times previously, the coastal plain has been calling my name, and I’m now even involved in a large-scale proposal to get a better handle on the insect diversity in the eastern US lowlands. However, my ‘boots on the ground’ time in the lowcountry has been minimal, a situation I’ve been eager to rectify. So this past week, a team from my lab (Master’s student Anthony Deczynski, postdoctoral fellow Shelley Myers and myself) made a 5-day visit to the Baruch Institute in the coastal flats of Georgetown County, South Carolina. It was productive and eye-opening.

The Baruch Institute is a research station operated by Clemson on the grounds of the Baruch Foundation’s ‘Hobcaw Barony’ a collection of lands formerly owned by the Baruch family, willed to the state by Belle Baruch to establish a research preserve. Hobcaw inclues a mosaic of marine, freshwater, and terrestrial habitats, with the nonmarine areas dominated by pine woodlands and cypress swamps. For our first visit we wanted to sample a little of everything that the area had to offer, and managed to do a pretty good job of that.

For our main sampling sites we selected to different areas of pine forest, one that had been part of a regular burning rotation to maintain the open grassland character of the understory. The other had escaped fire for over 40 years, allowing a dense and lush understory to develop. Fire has probably been a constant feature of these woodlands throughout their evolution, and many rare plants rely on fire for regeneration, so the grassland is likely the most natural state. Nonetheless, seeing what might be living in a larger late successional example made for a potentially interesting comparison. Our third site was down in the lowland swamp, right along the edge of permanently flooded cypress-tupelo woodland.

In each of these sites we employed a number of traps, including flight intercept traps…

 Malaise traps…

 Canopy traps….

 ...and Lindgren funnel traps…

 ...with some meat and fruit bait traps scattered here and there for good measure.

While these traps did their work we beat, swept, debarked, and generally scoured the surroundings for more cryptic beetle species. We also took a couple side trips to nearby and complementary habitats.

A trip to the beach was essential, yielding a great diversity of beetles washed up with the tides, as well as a selection of dune and coastal scrub specialist species. This area, adjacent to the exclusive DeBordieu Colony, also hosted some interesting maritime forest, a mix of shorter pine and oak, with a rich understory growing in mostly sandy soils.

Each night of course we broke out the blacklights, running at least two and as many as four each night in various places.

So, what about the beetles? There were a lot of them (most of which still remain unmounted)! We had arrived in the immediate wake of Tropical Storm Ana, so I think that the rains followed by heat and high humidity triggered a lot of activity. Our first night was by far our best, yielding an incredible diversity and abundance of species. Some of the highlights were Polyphylla (probably occidentalis), Phileurus truncatus (and many of its larvae), numerous Monochamus (carolinensis?), a smattering of smaller longhorns, several specimens of a very large Chlaenius, ceratocanthine scarabs, and a great abundance of small staphylinoids (scyds, pselaphines, and staphs proper) and cucujoids. Subsequent nights were not as exceptional, but also very productive.

Here's Anthony's hands full of Phileurus larvae.

Below is a shot of what was pinnable after the first couple days and nights.

We are still sorting and just getting started mounting the smaller stuff, including a couple good litter samples (one with Adranes, a funny clavigerine pselaphine). The pointing is ongoing, although a little sampler is shown below. I’ll plan to update with more details and photos on that material soon.

My working beetle list for the trip has 285 species, and I'd guess there will likely be close to 400 when all is said and done.

[Thanks to Shelley for all of the trap photos.]

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Continuing where my last post left off, the Berleseing went fantastically (thanks to Shelley putting in some weekend hours!) Beetles in all samples, in good numbers, including many Cercopeus (from both Wannamaker and the 'WalMart site'), among other things. I've only thoroughly sorted one so far, the pine litter from Wannamaker, but the beetles included at least 4 or 5 different Pselaphines, a diversity of Scaphidiines and Scydmaenines (all now considered part of Staphylinidae proper), Leiodids, Latridiids, Carabids, Cryptophagids, Tenebrionids, Nitidulids, Ptiliids (surprisingly few), and even a Histerid (Xestipyge)! I can't wait to go through the other 5 samples, and then to get back out in the field and hit some new sites. The season is in full swing. Below are a couple of through-the-eyepiece snapshots.

I might have warned the sensitive that I do have a bit of a thing for ants, for reasons that many readers will already know. Hint - it also has to do with beetles - but that'll be a post for another time.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Seeking Cercopeus

After a late but serious onset of winter in the south, and days of storm warnings and school closures, it was a treat to see the sun, and to get out sifting some leaf litter. It was a double or triple treat because we were able to connect with Jan Ciegler and weevilologist extraordinaire Bob Anderson (who mistakenly thought he could come south and escape the winter - Sorry Bob!)

Bob's been intrigued for some time by a group of winter active weevils in the genus Cercopeus (see BugGuide picture here: Cercopeus) that Jan, Charlie O'Brien, and Jennifer Giron worked on a few years back (published here in Insecta Mundi), reportedly with numerous new species still lurking about in the southeast. So Bob decided that in addition to seeking warmth, he would seek some Cercopeus, and invited us to join them on a day out.

In Jan's experience the beetles were often found in the sandhills regions, areas of ancient coastal dune, now far-removed from the coast, and mostly well vegetated. The sandhills of Georgia and the Carolinas are home to numerous endemic species of both insects and plants, and are a biome I've long been interested in getting to know better. So I was excited to experience some sandhills, while also spending time in the field with some renowned coleopterists.

Our first stop was at the Wannamaker Nature Preserve, southeast of Columbia. The area was not classic sandhills, with mixed hardwood forest and some pines on the ridges, but immediately below the litter the soil was almost pure sand, a very far cry from the red clay of the higher areas upstate.

At one point we had five sifters going simultaneously, between Bob, Jan, Shelley, Bob's wife Catherine, and myself, surely a record of some kind. Here's Bob, demonstrating proper technique.

I spent a little time doing more general collecting, and only found a few things, mostly under bark, the tenebs Platydema and Alobates, an endomychid, silvanids, and a whole mess of flat little nitidulids, Prometopia, I believe, raising the question what the proper collective noun might be for nitidulids - a nexus of nitidulids, perhaps?

Our second stop was near the town of Ballentine, northwest of Columbia, on a property that was apparently at one time considered as a site for a Wal-Mart. Jan said that she found a new species of Cercopeus there, although I didn't quite get whether it was the weevil that stopped Wal-Mart or not. Here four of us sifted while Katie and Peter picked bark. A neat, if small parcel, now thoroughly sifted.

Will be Berleseing over the next few days and will report back...

Friday, January 16, 2015

Field work recommences

After a several month silence (mostly a hunkering down to write a grant proposal and lectures for my new course in Conservation Genetics), I am happy to be getting back to some more regular and serious fieldwork. My new postdoc, Shelley Myers, will be undertaking a project examining the responses and resilience of leaf litter beetles to forest disturbance and regeneration.

Today we took our first sampling foray out to one of South Carolina DNR's Heritage Preserves, Buzzard's Roost, just a little west of Walhalla. Although the trail was poorly maintained, we found an abundance of great leaf litter. This was the first sifting I've ever done outside of California, and it was as exciting as it was momentous.

We ran our samples through Berlese funnels as soon as we got back to the lab, and can confirm a wide variety of beetles (leiodids, nitidulids, weevils, and pselaphines were conspicuous), and we haven't really looked at them too closely yet. I'm looking forward to many more outings, and to building a rich collection of a lot of tiny, obscure, and exquisite coleopterans!

Here's a few pictures from the day.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A mysterious LBB (little black beetle)...

This just in: My initial identification of this thing appears to have been incorrect. I have edited the post accordingly. Thanks to Floyd Shockley for the correct identification: Micropsephodes lundgreni.

I may be able to announce one of our first new southeastern beetle discoveries today. I’ve spent the past few weeks sorting the rather large accumulation of unsorted beetles in the Clemson collection. This now includes many of the specimens collected since we moved to South Carolina. As I reached the end of one of these new trays there were some minute (~1.2mm) black beetles, collected by Katie and me back in March, that I did not immediately recognize, even to family. This is pretty rare and always exciting. The first specimen I looked at evidently had been collected dead, as it was missing most legs, antennae, even the labrum had broken off. While I knew it was interesting, I also knew it’d be an uphill battle to identify it based on what was still there. Fortunately two more intact specimens turned up in short order. I’ll show a few pictures first, with the spoilers to come later.

I must sheepishly admit that I did not immediately turn to the family key in the new American Beetles. I was convinced it must be something I’d recognize if I just went through the characters I could see in my head for a while. It was pretty clearly cucujoid, and I narrowed the possibilities down to just a couple families. Then I headed on to BugGuide, mainly to look at pictures of genera that I didn’t already know. It was among the endomychids that a the winning candidate finally emerged, a genus I’d never heard of: Rhymbomicrus (subfamily Anamorphinae – a heterogeneous assemblage in both name and composition [here is the point where I should have referred to a good key]!) LSAM folks had posted a few pictures of a specimen Matt Gimmel identified, good enough to suggest a confirm the genus at least. The first fun realization was that we didn't yet have any of this group in the collection, so these were at least new to Clemson. [This remains true; Micropsephodes lundgreni is still new to our collection.]

American Beetles revealed a revision done by Jim Pakaluk in 1987, published in the ESA Annals. So I had high hopes of identifying our specimens to species. These hopes were quickly dashed, since I had the genus wrongbut for what I expect will be an interesting reason. The genus includes only three North American species, and the key seems straightforward, running straight to Rhymbomicrus lobatus, the most widespread of the three (though never previously reported from South Carolina). However, nowhere in the key or in the description does it mention a very distinctive character of these – our lone male has a small hairy horn on the clypeus! This is best seen in the lateral view, if you compare the left figures (the male) with the right. It’s possible that this interesting sexual dimorphism was previously overlooked, but Jim and his publications are generally highly regarded, and with a fair bit of material available to him, it’s hard to believe. So it seems possible that we’re dealing with a new species in a poorly known and little documented group. Topping it all off is the fact that this was collected on the Botanic Garden grounds on the Clemson University campus. In Chris Carlton & Rich Leschen's original description of Micropsephodes lundgreni, the interesting sexual dimorphism is clearly figured and described, and this would have clinched the identification, had I not been misled by the close similarity of Rhymbomicrus. I am at least glad to see that both they and Floyd Shockley in a more recent note on the species have emphasized the sparseness of records for this species. So despite my initial misidentification, this remains an interesting and valuable record. As I’m always telling people, there are great discoveries to be made literally everywhere, if one takes the time to look.

Wrapping up my embarrassed updates, I frequently warn folks about the dangers inherent in using photo guides to make identifications. I thought I was exempt from my own warnings. In the midst of a diverse and new fauna, I am most certainly not!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Getting back to business

As many of you may know, it's been a busy month for my wife and I - We had our first child May 27th, and moved into a new house two weeks later. So collecting has taken a bit of a back seat. However, I'm very excited to explore the wooded areas around our new place. The back yard's about an acre of fairly mature woodland, not far from several large tributaries of Lake Hartwell. I've got high hopes for some easy local beetling.

Last night, after several days of unpacking, I decided it was time for the first glimpse of the local fauna (or maybe it would be better to call it the first 'official' glimpse, because the fireflies are very abundant in the yard in early evening). So I pulled out the mercury vapor lamp. It is so nice to run this where there are real electrical outlets rather than off a loud generator!
It was a warm, humid night, and the bugs did not disappoint. I couldn't resist spending the time this morning seeing what was there.
Not a bad haul, for a couple of evening hours. Most of this came to the light, but there's also a nice woodpile left in the back from the previous owners having taken out a number of trees. The wood pile produced most of the cerambycids, three synchroids (my first), Alobates, and a few scolytines. It will be fun to keep an eye on this as the season progresses.

I'm not going to go into great detail on this catch, but would like to preview some images from my new imaging system (Visionary Digital's Passport). From here on I expect I'll be posting more of a mix of field and studio photos, since so many tiny things can't be field-photographed very easily. I'm still dialing in the settings, but here's a sampling.

Chelonarium lecontei (Chelonariidae).
Lichenophanes sp. (Bostrichidae).
An as yet unidentified limnichid (this specimen's about 2.5 mm long, near the limit of what my system can handle without modification).
And at the upper size limit for the 1-5x macro lens, a robust Phyllophaga.
Now to get back out into the field!