Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Happy Squirrel Appreciation Day

It's Squirrel Appreciation Day. Celebrate accordingly.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Really Metallic Wood Boring Beetles

How about another post that links archaeology and entomology? While in New England for the Christmas and New Year's holidays, Leon and I took an afternoon in Boston to visit the Museum of Fine Arts. One object in particular caught my eye. This necklace was excavated by the Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts expedition to Giza. It was found in the coffin of Impy, who was the chief royal architect during the reign of Pharaoh Pepy II. Pepy II ruled from about 2278 BCE to about 2184 BCE, and is thought to have been the longest ruling king in ancient Egypt. The piece caught my eye because the oval gold pieces around the outer edge of the necklace are in the form of buprestid (metallic wood boring) beetles.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

In which I pretend to be an archaeological entomologist

Shortly before Christmas, I was contacted by everyone's favorite gay archaeologist, Homer. He was working a dig in Tucson and had been uncovering artifacts from the 1890s. One of them was an old can that contained a bunch of dirt mixed with insects. If he sent me a sample, would I be willing to try to identify them? Ever up for a challenge, I said yes. A few days later, a vial of dirt mixed with insect parts arrived. I dug out some equipment and got to work.


The sample contained a bunch of fragments from what appeared to be a fairly large kind of beetle. From the size, color, and location, I had a pretty good idea right away what I was working with. The leg fragments (femora and tibiae only) were the first big clue. The tibia (straight, narrow section above) is about 6.5 mm long and the femur (the more oval secction) is about 7 mm long. They come from a pretty big bug. The metallic green coloring is distinctive. There were what looked like fragments of ribbon of the same color. These were sternites, the ridges of the abdominal segments.


The sample also included a number of oddly shaped plate-like structures that were not metallic green. These were pronota. the pronotum is the dorsal covering of an insect's thorax.


By this point, I was pretty sure that I was working with parts of a biggish scarab beetle called a fig eater (Cotinis mutabilis) . They are bright green with a metallic luster below, and are green and brown with a matte luster above. I have several in my collection, including a couple collected right in Homer's back yard. When I compared the legs and pronota to those on my mounted specimens, they matched beautifully.

Cotinis mirabilis mutabilis
The pronotum is just towards the head from the pin

Cotinis mirabilis mutabilis showing the metallic green underside

Fig eaters range from Texas to California and south into Mexico. In the Tucson area they are a common species and fly from July to September during the summer monsoons. As their name implies, they eat fruit, especially if it's overripe or fermenting. I wonder if they had not entered the can to find fruit or fruit residues inside. Something was probably attracting them to the can, since I found so many remains. I recovered 18 pronota from the sample, which means that there were at least that many beetles in the can at one point.

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