Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Go to a sandy beach or an open patch of sandy soil just about anywhere in the summer and you are likely to see tiger beetles. You will at first see these diurnal insects running ahead of you. Their long, slender legs propel them over the ground at amazing speeds. If you get too close, they jump into the air, open their elytra (wing covers), and quickly fly away. They usually land nearby, and you may be able to follow individual beetles until one lets you get close enough for prolonged observation.

But look quickly, as they are likely to run and stop, run and stop as they hunt for prey. They have exceptionally long, sharply pointed, tooth-lined mandibles, with which they capture other insects and spiders. They make short work of their prey and move on to hunt again. Their vision is superb, both to find prey and avoid predators.

Even though they are alert and fast, they do have predators, including birds, lizards, and robber flies. Birds such as kestrels and flycatchers capture them in the air, shrikes on the ground. As well as their obvious adaptations, some tiger beetles secrete defensive chemicals that presumably protect them from some predators.

The cuticle of tiger beetles is somewhat iridescent, and although the majority of species are sort of a bronzy brown, many of them are brightly colored, usually green but sometimes purple or blue. Some species are polymorphic, coming in two or more of these colors. The undersides are often more metallic than the upper surfaces. Some species have red abdomens that show up when they fly. Most tiger beetles have a characteristic pattern of spots and lines on their elytra, and variations on that pattern are often what define different species.

Unlike many insects, when tiger beetles mate they both face the same way, so they can continue to run across the ground (but not to fly) when the male is perched on the female's back. This lessens the likelihood of predation when they are in this vulnerable state. A male may remain on the female's back after copulation to keep other males from mating with her. Females lay their eggs, one at a time, into the soil in places appropriate for the larva.

Tiger beetle larvae are just as predacious as the adults, but we don't see them at work. They live in burrows in the sand, covered except for a hard head capsule and a pair of mandibles. When another insect comes too close, they reach up from the surface and grab it, then pull it down into their burrow, to which they are anchored by hooks on top of the fifth abdominal segment. They have been known to capture dragonflies of much larger size that had the bad luck to land right at the mouth of a burrow.

There are 17 species of tiger beetles known from Washington state, all in the day-active, brightly colored genus Cicindela except for two nocturnal black species of Omus. Few of the species are statewide; most have limited ranges on one side of the Cascades, up in the mountains, or along the coast or big rivers.

Fortunately for aficionados of this group, there are two fine books available:

A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada, by David L. Pearson, C. Barry Knisley, and Charles J. Kazilek, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Tiger Beetles: The Evolution, Ecology, and Diversity of the Cicindelids, by David L. Pearson and Alfried P. Vogler, Cornell University Press, 2001.

Dennis Paulson

Nature Blog Network