Southern Arizona: A Bug Geek’s Paradise!

tarantula
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Tarantula

Last week, I attended what is probably the best conference ever!! Well, that is if you are interested in wildlife, especially invertebrates.  The Invertebrates in Education and Conservation conference is a small gathering of people who are involved in invertebrates in some way. Most of the attendees are employed by insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the country, some are teachers, some are doctors, and some, like all of us, just plain love bugs!

The conference is held in a small town called Rio Rico which is located about an hour south of Tucson and right above the Mexican border. Located right smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, this quaint little town is perfect for spotting some spectacular wildlife; some of which can only be found in that particular habitat. The insects and arachnids are amazing, but there are also plenty of desert-dwelling mammals, reptiles, and birds to make anyone’s day!

arizona-mountains
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Arizona Mountains

The conference is full of activities: workshops, field trips, paper presentations, and lets not forget the social aspect! Bug people really know how to party! But seriously, there is so much invaluable information that I get from talking to the other conference participants. I can always learn ways to improve every aspect of our facility and that’s why this conference is so important.

chrysina
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Chrysina beetle

I was able to go on a few collecting trips as well as purchase some critters that I was not able to catch myself. I came back with some great new bugs that you will soon be able to see on display! 

I caught some gorgeous beetles including cactus longhorn beetles (Moneilema gigas), fig beetles (Cotinis mutabilis), and jewel scarabs (Chrysina sp.).  Cactus longhorn beetles are robust black beetles with very long antennae, which are characteristic of longhorn beetles. They can be found during the cooler hours of the day feeding on Cholla. This is a cactus with extremely tough sharp spines, so collecting these beetles can be a bit of a challenge. They are harmless, but somewhat resemble another black beetle called a darkling beetle. These beetles secrete a foul-smelling liquid to deter predators, so resembling them along with hiding in the sharp spines of the cholla helps to keep the longhorn beetles safe.

Fig beetles are also known as Green June Beetles and can be found here in Texas. They are, however, very abundant and easy to catch in the desert. They are active during the day and fly around, buzzing very loudly, from plant to plant. Very often, people think that a bumble bee or something similar is headed for them until the beetle lands, showing off its beautiful emerald green coloration. They love to eat over-ripe, soft fruits such as figs and peaches, hence the name!

Chrysina, or Jewel beetles are a magnificent find. There are 3 species common to the area: gloriosa, lecontei, and beyeri. They are all beautiful, but a little harder to find then the fig beetles because they are active at night.

cholla
 Creative Commons License photo credit: Lary Reeves
Cholla Plant

I was also on the look out for katydids of course (my favorite!)  I brought back 1 very small nymph which I will not be able to identify until it matures. I’m very anxious to see what species it is! I was also able to get some various desert katydids, all belonging to the sub-family tettigoniinae. This sub-family is comprised of predaceous katydids. Some are active predators that will hunt and kill their prey and some are scavengers, feeding on eggs and freshly dead invertebrates. They all require plant material in their diets as well.  Out of the 6 I brought back, 2 are male sooty-winged katydids (Capnobotes fuliginosus), 2 I have not been able to identify, and 2 are a pair of Haldeman’s shieldback katydids (Pediodects haldemani). I am especially excited about these two because I actually have a male and female that I would love to breed.

Blog 018
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Haldeman’s Shieldback

As you can see, this species has kind of a diabolical look to it, and since predatory katydids are known to inflict a painful bite when handled, I will be careful with this one!

It was not all fun and games for me. I went there to present a paper. I actually presented on our blog! I love to talk and write about bugs to anyone who will listen or read and it has been well received!

So, hopefully you bug geeks out there will continue to read and put Southern Arizona on your list of places to visit, you won’t regret it! If you get there, be sure to visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI). They are the ones who organize and host this wonderful gathering and they rely on our support. Well, until next time, happy bug watching!

Incidental Herping and Heroes

Southeast Arizona desert

Southeast Arizona desert

I recently took an all-too-short birding trip to Arizona. (Birding is like bird-watching only more sciency.) While my friend Martha and I set our sights on finding some of SE Arizona’s more glamorous birds, we did take the opportunity to check out some of the other local fauna. We were privileged to observe kangaroo rats, a family of javelina, swarms of mosquitoes and a variety of very speedy lizards. Here are a few of the non-blurry pictures we managed to snap of the slower daytime critters.

aponophelma species

Wild tarantula peeking out of her hole at the Sonoran Desert Museum - in the bird aviary!

dung beetle

A dung beetle! If you look closely you can see the ball it is rolling.

western box turtle

Martha first spotted this little cutie on our walk in San Pedro Valley.

While lots of animals are active during the day, some are easier to find at night. Daytime or nighttime, herping is good, clean fun. It’s a lot like birding, except with reptiles and amphibians and more often than not you try to catch them. Herping, especially in the desert, can be very rewarding once the sun sets. As the air cools, the roadways retain a lot of their warmth, which reptiles and amphibians crawl out to absorb.

Summer is also monsoon season in SE Arizona, so toads are just as likely as snakes. Our nocturnal guides on our mini-excursion were none other than the same folks who had rescued us the night before from atop a mountain when our rental had a flat tire and a leaky spare – a story for another time but heroes none the less. Quick shout-out to Nick, Mary, Steve and Becky!

As we set off into the night, watching a spectacular lightning show to boot, Martha and I followed behind our knowledgeable leaders in our car. How prepared were they? They even had these cool radios so when we stopped abruptly I would know where to park without running over our intended “catch”. Of course, we only handled the nonvenomous reptiles and all of them were herded or released to the side of the road. Safety first! Here are some of the pictures Martha took since, wouldn’t you know it, my digital’s batteries died after the first rattlesnake.

great plains toad

One of our first toads: a Great Plains Toad, who it turns out can hold quite a lot of water.

couch's spadefoot

I was surprised at the greenish tint of this Couchs Spadefoot toad.

mojave rattlesnake

All of the rattlesnakes we found at night were juveniles, and none were as large as this Mojave Rattlesnake.

rock rattlesnake

I found this Rock Rattlesnake as we headed to Tucson, though not under a rock.

Threadsnake

I still do not know how Nick spotted this Threadsnake on the side of the road. Now to count the head scales to accurately identify it.

desert variation of common kingsnake

After this gorgeous Desert Kingsnake finished defecating all over Nick, I got to hold it!

longnose snake

One of the more colorful snakes we saw that night, the Longnose snake.

Martha, not necessarily a fan of snakes but more an appreciator of amphibians, was very patient with me when I requested she photograph each of the critters we saw. We had a great time and would have stayed out longer had the weather been slightly more cooperative.

aphonophelma species

aphonophelma species

On our way back to Tucson to catch our flights home we also were lucky enough to spot this little beauty (at 70 mph no less) crossing the road. By the time I turned around we had nearly lost it to the roadside shrubbery full of cows. We had a great adventure and can’t wait to plan another trip to spot all those we missed this go round!