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'.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My first southeastern beetle (in many years)

Following over 12 years as a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where I specialized in the beetle fauna of California, an opportunity to move back to the southeastern United States presented itself, in the form of an endowed professorship at Clemson University. This move offered so many benefits to me and my family, both academic and personal that, despite Santa Barbara's unquestionable charms, I could not turn it down.

My years in a community-focused museum taught me the value of knowing and sharing information about the biota of one's immediate surroundings, and that belief has accompanied me to Clemson. So as I begin to learn more about my new local beetle fauna, I wanted to share this voyage of discovery with others who wish to learn a little more about the remarkable diversity of beetles of the southeastern U.S. No doubt I will encounter many species that long-time southeastern naturalists will consider dirt common and relatively uninteresting, but as my knowledge deepens I hope to repay readers' perseverance.

For my first post, it seemed to make sense to record the first beetle I encountered during my new residence. On our third or fourth day in town, following two weeks of a thoroughly enjoyable (smirk) cross-country move, we needed a break and some fresh air. We managed to find the box our disc golf frisbees were in, and headed out to the nearby University Beach course, just across Lake Hartwell from the Clemson campus. On the sixth hole a flash of red flew before my eyes. My hand flew out by reflex to snag our first official South Carolina beetle(*). This is a lycid, or 'net-winged' beetle, Dictyoptera aurora, welcoming us to the Palmetto State. I knew a similar and related species in California (D. simplicipes), so this was an ideal combination of old and new.

In the week or so since, I have already encountered more of our elegantly-elytraed friends, and look forward to sharing further photos and stories. Enjoy.

* Ok, I'm lying about this being the first beetle we encountered. But I refuse to count the multicolored Asian ladybird beetles (an invasive and hyperabundant species, maybe to be covered in a future post) found in our new crawlspace.