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!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Riley Moore Falls

A cool front moved into the southeast this weekend, following the first real thunderstorms we've seen since moving back. It made for a cool day for a beetling hike, and the activity was pretty limited. We picked another off the long, must-see list of upstate SC waterfalls, Riley Moore Falls, along the Chauga River. The falls was low and broad, with small beach and fantastic swimming hole. Will definitely have to come back on a hot summer day.
Our friend Cicindela sexguttata was shivering beneath the bark of this pine, not even ready to face the day at 10:30.
This pine hosted what was probably our best beetle find of the day. As I was peeling bark a few feet away, Katie started aspirating vigorously, trying to extract something from a borehole. I came over and started picking away at the wood around the hole, opening it up a little more, and then finally between the two of us we managed to extract a quick melandryid, Serropalpus substriatus, I believe (needs to be confirmed under the scope yet). I was surprised to find that the eastern species is supposedly the same as the one I know well from California. But it appears to be. Our teamwork eventually yielded a couple more, although they were too feisty to photograph (see pictures on BugGuide.)

Investigating a small creek I happened upon some specialist carnivory in action. This is a beetle larva, thorax deep in a snail. I'm kicking myself for not having collected the larva (I hated to disturb its meal), but I'm not entirely sure what it is. There are also specialist snail predators in the Lycidae, Lampyridae, and Silphidae, all surprisingly similar in morphology, but I believe this is a carabid, Scaphinotus.
 A couple beetles spotted on the side of the trail: a lycid, Eros humeralis, I believe,
The lagriine tenebrionid Arthromacra aenea,
And a click beetle which I have yet to identify, but have seen on several trips around here.
Finally I'll close with a grab-bag of attractive and interesting non-beetles. The first one's a gorgeous caddisfly for our friend and colleague John Morse (yes, John, I collected it). [This has now been identified as a species of Phryganeidae in the genus Ptilostomis - Thanks, John!]
A very ant-mimicky fly, identified by BugGuiders as a stilt-legged fly (family Micropezidae).
And a truly bizarre caterpillar. At first I was thinking geometrid, but Chris Grinter tells me it's Erebidae, Phyprosopus callitrichoides, the 'Curve-Lined Owlet moth'. A picture of the adult is available on the Moth Photographers Group website.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Love is in the air

Another place to add to the list of beetleful hikes in the SC upcountry: Eastatoe Creek Gorge. Katie and I spent the day meandering and beating our way slowly down this trail. In fact we spent so much time collecting that we never quite made it to the bottom before we had to turn around. That just means we'll have to go back.

The irresistible allure of Spring in the mountains apparently caused many little hearts to go pitter-patter. Courtship and coupling were the order of the day. Hispine leaf beetles were happily mating on their host plants in the sun.

While the trogids were overcome by the intoxicating aroma of coyote dung.

There were numerous other exciting (but unphotographed) finds throughout the day, including a male Platycerus (a small stag beetle), a 'nest' of Galerita under some loose bark (large blue and orange ground beetles, which make quite an impression when 8 of them scatter in all directions!), and a large buprestid (Dicerca, I believe) that landed on a tree trunk in front of me while I was standing on the side of the trail gazing off into the gorge.

Among the most interesting catches was a single individual of Valgus (a small scarab). While these are generally reputed to be associated with termites, this one was in an ant colony, in fact being carried around by the ants. While this may have just been an anomaly (it was a rotten stump, and there may well have been termites nearby), ant- and termite-associated beetles do seem to evolve back and forth from time to time, and experiments with alternate hosts are likely the way such changes happen. Hard to tell if this inscrutable beetle was thinking 'Hmm, I liked it in there' or 'Thanks for getting me out of there'.

Finally, a beetle that turned out not to be a beetle. This moth fooled me into thinking it was a net-winged beetle until I got a little closer.

Compare to the distasteful model species on BugGuide: Calopteron terminale.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A day near Lake Wattacoo

The arrival of spring took a little u-turn partway there, and upstate SC has been unseasonably cool and moist for the past few weeks. This week, however, warming has resumed. And with that, the beetling..

This saturday I met Phil Harpootlian and Kevin Hinson at a site near Lake Wattacoo, in Northern Greenville County. Being out with other avid Coleopterists will always make for a great day. But this one was particularly good, perfectly clear, warm but not hot, and the beetles were waiting for us. Our first destination was Lake Wattacoo itself, a small reservoir with a pitcher-plant bog at its inflow.
The first beetles of the day were small elaterids perching in profusion on leaves along the side of the trail. No beat was complete without a click or two.
Nothing against click beetles, but things did get more exciting quickly, because the Cicindela sexguttata were out in good numbers too. It's hard to believe how common these stunning beetles are. (This was further underscored the next day by seeing one on the side of the driveway in our suburban neighborhood.)
A good bit of the day was spent hunting for good logs for debarking and dismantling. We did find several great logs in various stages of decay, and collected numerous 'typical' under bark things: silvanids, cerylonids (what Kevin calls 'the ubiquitous Philothermus'), colydiine zopherids, tenebrionids (Polypleurus, Uloma, Meracantha, and NOT Alobates), a few Pselaphines and Scydmaenines, a whole lot of cerambycid and buprestid larvae, and, of course, acceptable numbers of histerids (Epierus, Paromalus, a few Acritines). I was hoping for Baconia (two species of which should certainly be around), but I may have to get some flight interception traps (FITs) out to get those. Oh, and did I mention the abundant passalids? I know these are common too, but they are still very fun to see.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we headed up a little higher, and I wandered out to an exposed granitic outcrop. Here we made what may prove to be the day's most interesting discoveries.
A few little seeps trickling over these rocks supported moss and algal mat. Disturbing this a little we found dytiscids.
I can't say for sure what these are yet, but not too long ago Jan Ciegler described Hydrocolus heggiensis, from similar habitats from near the South Carolina/Georgia border, and I'm guessing that's what we've got, or a close relative. Dissection will be necessary to be sure.

Phil and I stayed a while into the evening and set up blacklights. It was a cool, but fairly active night, with about three species each of Phyllophaga and Serica coming in, a beautiful Nicrophorus carrion beetle, several Odontaeus ('earth-boring scarabs'), and a few lepturine cerambycids.

One of the more exciting sightings, however, was not at the black light. We crossed a bustling troop of what have to be army ants (Neivamyrmex) running across the trail (below).
I watched for a while, and did not detect any freeloaders, but these are known to host a number of very interesting staphylinids and histerids. It's extremely rare to find these with hosts, but in the right areas, the myrmecophiles should be flying. Yet another great reason to get some FITs out in this area. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

When Scolytines are Flying...

I picked a good week to do bark-beetle monitoring. Only three days out and the Lindgren Funnels are producing large numbers of bark beetles.

As far as I can tell there are at least 5 different species of Scolytinae in there, and at least a few other things, a possible laemophloeid and a couple latridiids. Soon the bark beetle predators will have to start arriving, the histerids, clerids, and trogositids. This community needs some balance.

Of course I would have known the bark beetles were flying even if I hadn't put out these highly specialized traps. Because they are literally everywhere! Yesterday evening working out in the yard they were scattered all over the sides of the house, the patio, the cars, our hair. It is a remarkable flight. It will be interesting to see how long it goes on.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Spring arrives in upstate SC

Following what was by all accounts a long and cold winter in the South, it's possible that Spring has finally arrived. Although there was frost on the windows early this morning, it warmed up well into the 70s by early afternoon. And the bugs responded! Suddenly there were ladybirds flying all over campus, butterflies flitting through the roadside shrubs, and a strong sense that winter might really be over.

The warmth triggered my collecting urge as well, and it only took slight prodding from my friend Anthony Cognato, who hoped I might find him some records of a newly invasive species of ambrosia beetle in our area, to get me out in the field. I got permission to set up Lindgren funnel traps at a couple University locations, one at the 'Cherry Farm', an off-campus agricultural experiment lab, and at the Clemson Botanical Garden, on the southern edge of campus. 

Lindgren funnels (above) supposedly mimic the profile of tree trunks, and attract all kinds of wood-boring beetles, as well as an impressive array of other beetles associated with various tree-based niches, including many predators of wood-boring beetles (read: Histeridae).

After setting a couple of these, it was our intention to take an afternoon walk through the Botanic Garden. Our walk proceeded about 15 feet until we found a nice downed log riddled with signs of beetle activity, as well as actual beetle activity. This is where we spent the rest of the day.

Perhaps it was the welcome spring conditions, priming the beetles for gregarious behavior, but many of our finds were multiples. Here's a duo of a click beetle (Lacon) and a tenebrionid (possibly Idiobates - some day I'll go back after confirming these id's and edit for certainty), and a trio of a trogossitid (Airora), something too small to identify yet (but collected), and what appears to be a bothriderid (probably Bothrideres). Where I come from bothriderids are pretty darn rare, so this was a fun find. We were too eager to get it in a vial to bother getting a really decent photo!

Finally, after the log was more or less barkless, we stood up and dusted ourselves off. And then I discovered our last find of the day, a diurnal and lightless firefly, Ellychnia corrusca, watching us collect from the relative safety of my t-shirt. I guess these are very common. But they sure are pretty, with their faintly golden pubescence. 

Knowing all this activity is going on not far from my office, it's going to be increasingly difficult to stay focused. On the other hand, good habitat is so accessible, a few evening hours here and there just might  satisfy my needs until I can organize a proper field trip.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Chattooga River - March 21, 2014

From one extreme to the other - our second outing as South Carolinians took us away from the coast and up into the mountains. We spent a friday hiking and beetling along the Chattooga River, which forms the northwestern border between Georgia and South Carolina. Most of what we walked was part of the Foothills Trail system, an extensive set of trails that demands further exploration.

The season was still very early, with almost no trees leafing out, but there were signs all around of impending spring. The area was dense with fat-budded Rhododendrons getting ready to flower. It will be spectacular up there very soon. About the only wildflowers we saw were these small violets on warmer slopes.

Beetlewise, the activity was mainly larval, and most of what we found was under bark and in rotten wood. We found numerous larval tenebrionids, elaterids, cerambycids, and buprestids (which I am collecting, below, to help supplement a future 'immature insects' course I hope to teach).

Still a fair number of adult beetles turned up, mostly tiny things, especially cerylonids, weevils, both silvanid and cucujid flat bark beetles, a couple endomychids and erotylids, and a tenebrionid that may have been Uloma. There was even a small histerid, probably Paromalus. Unfortunately most of this stuff will remain in vials and unidentified until I have a decent lab to begin working in. Only a few posed for the camera, a cucujid and nitidulid, above, and weevil, below.

As the day warmed up we also saw an increasing number of these flea beetles perching on vegetation, enjoying the sun on their backs.

Perhaps the most striking find of the day was a colony of Cryptocercus wood roaches. These humble and secretive roaches are extremely interesting, both because they are subsocial, and because in recent years have been realized to form an evolutionary link between cockroaches and termites.

As a side note, last night there was an informal gathering of what we might call the SCC - the South Carolina Coleopterists - at the home of John and Suzanne Morse. At a welcome dinner for me and Katie, we got to talk beetles with the reigning members, Jan Ciegler and Phil Harpootlian. I look forward to learning more from them about the local fauna and environments.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Exploring the Carolina Coastal Plain

   Our second weekend in South Carolina was an interesting one. A very well-timed symposium on the responses of biodiversity to climate change in the southeast was held at East Carolina University, in 'the other Greenville' (North Carolina) organized by David Chalcraft, Trip Lamb and others. I thought this would be a great opportunity to familiarize myself with research going on in the region, as well as a nice chance to see some more of the surroundings, particularly the coastal areas of the Carolinas.

   The last talk of the symposium, by Reed Noss of the University of Central Florida, was not only interesting, but fairly tranformational in terms of my thinking about the area. I've always been far more drawn to montane areas than coastal areas in general, for both the scenery and the insect diversity, and coming to Clemson my presumption was that the southern Appalachians would be my primary beetle-hunting grounds. Well, Reed's talk laid out the case for formal recognition of a biodiversity hotspot along the southeastern Coastal Plain (more or less as outlined in the map at right.) Not only are levels of overall diversity and endemism surprisingly high, but the threats from both development and sea level rise. Of course while he was able to base a strong argument on plant, vertebrate, and fungal diversity, he threw up his hands when it came to arthropod diversity (for the most part - he had some pretty compelling ant data from Florida scrub). So this not only changes my mind about what's interesting in this area, but serves as something of a call-to-arms. Entomologists could help considerably in substantiating this case. More collections and data compilations from the area are needed.

   Following the symposium Katie and I were energized to get out and see some of this Coastal Plain diversity for ourselves! It was quite early in the year, and there wasn't a whole lot to see. But we looked at each find with a new appreciation for what they might represent.
   We spent just a short day wandering in the lowland coastal forests around Carolina Beach, NC, in some bald-cypress bog and carnivorous plant habitat, as well as drier longleaf pine areas. The earliness of the season was exemplified by the finding of numerous larvae, including the longhorned and click beetle larvae shown above, as well as several others.

Our adult beetle finds in the pine forest included a newly eclosed Rhagium inquisitor in its pupal shell, not quite ready to face the light of day, an Alobates pensylvanicus (or maybe A. morio - evidently rarer but not easily distinguished), and a fungus weevil, Euparia sp. (maybe E. marmoreus, as suggested by BugGuider Mike Quinn).
   We ended the day with a walk on the beach, and a little sifting in the limited coastal dune (hemmed in pretty tightly by housing right up to the beach). The only beetle that turned up was a little scirtid, Cyphon sp. (in one of those genera that seems terminally hopeless for identification), rather a strange place for what is commonly known as a 'marsh beetle'.