Great Smoky Mountains Beetle Project News and Events 2004 - 2005

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The Coleoptera Taxonomic Working Group (TWIG) at the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum
Christopher Carlton, TWIG Coordinator

Possible New Species of Mycetophagidae
Chris Carlton
, Louisiana State University, Department of Entomology, Baton Rouge, LA 70803

The curious case of an undetermined species of hairy fungus beetle (Mycetophagidae) dramatically illustrates the value of having an engaged network of specialists involved in a project of this magnitude?and complexity. A collection of miscellaneous beetles were sent to Paul Skelley (Florida State Collection of Arthropods) for sorting. He and Mike Thomas recognized an unusual specimen that could not be keyed using the regular U.S. identification manual. They took digital photographs (see above) of relevant characters, especially an unusual pit at the midpoint of the prosternum (right, arrow, forward part of the beetles "chest"), and e-mailed them to Richard Leschen in New Zealand, who was able to identify the specimen as representing a probable undescribed species of the mycetophagid genus Triphyllus, perhaps near a European species, T. bicolor. Rich forwarded the photographs to beetle expert John Lawrence in Australia, who suggested it might be a member of Pseudotriphyllus instead. But, the generic limits of these two are questionable and additional specimens and comparative work will be required to establish its identity and assess its status with certainty. The point here is that a single non-descript but unusual 3-mm long brown beetle was examined by one of our cooperators, images were transmitted to specialists on the other side of the world, and authoritative conclusions were reached about? its identity and unique status within the GSMNP beetle fauna, all in a matter of a couple of hours.?

Triphyllus or Pseudotriphyllus n.sp. (photo courtesy Paul Skelley)

Sifting Litter in the Great Smoky Mountains
Victoria Bayless and Chris Carlton, Louisiana State University, Department of Entomology, Baton Rouge, LA 70803

Several organisms encountered incidentally during sifting operations. Left, timber rattlesnake
(initially misidentified as a large cicada); right, Xyloryctes jamaicensis, a dynastine scarab beetle.

Eight DLIA scientists and 16 volunteers gathered during the week of 27 July-2 August 2004 to conduct the first ever Forest Litter Blitz.? The objective of this event was not to pick up trash in the forest but rather to harvest the diversity of small organisms that inhabit the organic layer on the forest floor, including leaves, twigs, and other woody debris (e.g., rotten logs).?? A diverse microcosm of tiny invertebrates exists within this layer of moldy, decomposing organic debris, including beetles, springtails, mites, land snails, pseudoscorpions, millipedes, centipedes, and many other, mostly lesser-known, creatures.? Isolating these tiny organisms requires sifting the litter into sample bags and using a technique called Berlese extraction.

Volunteers and scientists dispersed each morning armed with specially designed sifters built by members of our LSAM lab or DLIA volunteer Will Merritt (thanks Will!).? They returned at the end of each day tired and dirty with precious bags of dirt.? Several different Berlese Funnel devices were used to warm and dry the samples and drive the organisms into waiting containers of preservative.? We appreciate Ernie Bernard's generosity in loaning us equipment from his lab and the assistance of Adriean Mayor and Tommy Allen in transporting and setting up additional funnels.? During the latter part of the week volunteers and scientists entertained themselves by sorting the various organisms taxonomically for distribution to specialists.? Commonly overheard comments included: "What is THIS?" and "Its so cute!"? Highlights of the week's fieldwork included Alexey Tishechkin's solo backpacking expedition to Thunderhead Mountain where he collected three large samples in one of the more difficult areas to access (see related story below). Chris Carlton and Jan Ciegler's had an exciting encounter with a big rattlesnake that cicada expert Carlton initially misidentified as a really BIG cicada. Rattlesnakes and cicadas both buzz, right?? In total, we collected 36 litter samples that we estimate will yield approximately 3,000 arthropod specimens. We immediately picked out the beetles and those are being processed at our lab at LSU. We also set aside small fractions of litter for cellular slime mold cultures and sorted small snails for DLIA scientist Dan Dourson. Analysis of the samples is ongoing but significant initial discoveries include yet more "new to science" species of the ground beetle genus Anillinus (in addition to the five species of Anillinus known from the Park including four recently described species) and the discovery of a specimen of undescribed snail that probably will be designated as a paratype when formally described. Organisms extracted but not sorted from the samples were deposited with park curator Adriean Mayor for further sorting and distribution to interested scientists or identification in-house.? A significant achievement of the event that is related to our own forest litter beetle diversity survey was filling important distributional gaps from the west and southwest parts of the Park.

We enjoyed interacting with tourists outside Sugarlands Visitor Center by first luring them to us using displays of large showy beetles and beautiful scanned images and photographs of the tiny organisms found in this habitat, then we showed them the real thing, often 2 mm or less in length.? They liked the photographs better!? We also demonstrated the finer points of litter sifting, which the children seemed to intuitively understand and appreciate.?? While parents often wrinkle their noses at our insect collecting activities, the children are fascinated at the diversity of cool and neat stuff that lives beneath our feet in the GSMNP.

Litter Blitz 2004: New Discoveries from Thunderhead Mountain
Alexey Tishechkin, Louisiana State University, Department of Entomology, Baton Rouge, LA 70803

One of the notable events within the Litter Blitz was a mini-expedition to the Thunderhead Mountain. This is the highest mountain in the western half of the Park and apparently an area of at least some endemism for small invertebrates with limited dispersal capabilities. A carabid beetle Trechus tonitru Barr is known from nowhere else, but the summit of Thunderhead Mt. Collecting this species, the only one of numerous Trechus species not collected recently during the ATBI, along with filling gaps in our coverage for the Park highlands were the major reasons for a two-day hike and overnight stay at the Spence Field shelter.

The expedition was quite successful and the tough, five-mile hike back with a 60 pound-load of sifted litter paid off well. Numerous specimens of Trechus were collected and our suspicions that Thunderhead Mt. could harbor disjunct, yet undiscovered populations of other specialized soil and litter beetles turned out to be true (e.g., blind carabids of the genus Anillinus). The four samples were collected on the NC and TN sides of the summit of Thunderhead as follows: along the Appalachian Trail; half a mile east of it; and upper Jenkins Ridge Trail. They yielded among other beetles, three species of Anillinus, all of which may be new, even considering the recently described species by Sokolov et al. (2004)!? Obviously, resolution of the diversity within this genus is far from being complete, even for apparently well-collected areas, as we thought the Smokies were by now.? In addition to these "Thunderhead" Anillinus species, a new species for the Park (possible also undescribed) was discovered in leaf litter at the entrance to Gregory Cave in the Cades Cove area and numerous specimens from multiple localities were collected for another dubious Anillinus (either undescribed species or a subspecies of recently described A. langdoni), known previously only from three specimens.

The first results of processing and sorting other Litter Blitz 2004-collected beetles are also providing more exciting records. In the blind flightless leiodid beetle genus Catopocerus, only one of the five eastern species was originally known from the Park.? Recent collecting and identification of some other ATBI material confirmed the previously suspected presence of another Catopocerus species and presence of a possibly undescribed species in the central highlands. We also strongly suspect discovery of undecribed species in another specialized forest litter beetle genus, the aleocharine staphylinid genus Geostiba. According to Gusarov's (2002) revisionary paper, this genus includes numerous, narrowly localized, highland species in the southern Appalachians. Five of them are known from the Park, all in central and eastern parts of it? (i.e., Clingman's Dome, Mount LeConte, Snake Den Ridge and Balsam Mountain areas.? Numerous specimens of Geostiba were collected in the western areas, at and around Thunderhead Mt., and some other new localities.? These and numerous other forest litter specimens are waiting for processing and identification, and new discoveries seem to be just around the corner for litter fauna students.

Beetle Blitz 2005
Victoria Bayless and Chris Carlton, Louisiana State University, Department of Entomology, Baton Rouge, LA 70803

Left, captive audience of summer science campers enjoy a presentation by LSAM researchers followed by a
light trapping demontration at Elkmont. Right, non-target organisms, Dolomedes spider with prey.

Photinus carolinus, the synchronized
firefly (photo, Andrew Moiseff)

With support from a Discover Life in America minigrant, Victoria Bayless led a two week "beetle megablitz" during June 2005. The LSAM group included Bayless, Chris Carlton, Alexey Tishechkin, and Ph.D. students Mike Ferro and Matt Gimmel. We were joined by Sergey Kazantsev, a cantharoid (soldier and net-winged beetles, and firefly beetles) specialist from the American Museum. Participants also included at least 18 avocational beetle collectors, volunteers, and students, who received assignments for light trapping and/or flight intercept trapping and departed for far-flung corners of the park. Highlights included two multi-night hikes by Tishechkin, Gimmel, and Kazantsev to high elevation sampling sites and several late night forays with generators and mercury vapor settups to flood the deep forest with beetle-irresistable light for a few hours. This year, finally, we got a proper viewing of the synchronized fireflies, along with about 10,000 other people, at Elkmont. One of the informal goals of the blitz was to assist Curator Adriean Mayor in identifying additional localities with healthy populations of these and other firefly species to provide a better assessment of the potential impact of the thousands of visitors to Elkmont on the health of the firefly populations there. The synchronized fireflies provide a spectacular display and serve an important role as ambassadors in educating the public about the importance of the order Coleoptera. But the sheer number of visitors has stretched the park's ability to manage traffic and crowds and raised concerns that the population of fireflies may be negatively impacted by the volume of pilgrims that make the short hike to the beetles' mating grounds every year. We noticed that even a single flash from a flashlight (it was absolutely pitch black dark on the trail) was enough to disrupt the flashing sequence for several minutes, and the activity period of the fireflies is relatively brief. Fortunately, surveys conducted during and after the blitz have confirmed the presence of synchronized fireflies at other localities. Thus, when considered across the entire area of the park, the species seems to have a healthy population structure and is probably resilient enough to withstand the annual onslaught at Elkmont. Park management is planning ahead to aggressively manage visitor traffic at Elkmont and has put into place measures (e.g., mandating red filters for flashlights) designed to mitigate unnecessary disturbance to the synchronized firefly population that has proven such a hit during the June mating season. For a writeup on synchronized firefly research by neurobiologist Andrew Moiseff, at the University of Connecticut, click on his photo of the synchronized firefly.

We conducted a considerable amount of educational outreach during this blitz. Of course we did the "always-a-big-hit" interpretative station outside the Visitor Center. We also presented formal presentations to a group of about 22 science campers at Elkmont Campground (picture above), with a light trapping demonstration after nightfall, and conducted a teacher workshop for a similar sized group of primary and secondary school teachers at Tremont Institute.