In mid-August, I joined Wayne Gall, entomology curator for the Buffalo Museum of Science, on a tiger hunt along Cattaraugus Creek.
No, we were not heavily armed -- we carried only butterfly nets -- and to my best knowledge there are no threatening man-eaters loose in the area. The tigers we sought were tiger beetles. Under a grant from the New York Natural Heritage Program, Gall and his Albany colleague, Paul Novak, have been searching the state for rare species of this family.
Robert Graves and David Brzoska suggest that the name tiger beetles "probably refers to the predatory habits of these insects, and also perhaps to the fact that many species are marked with white stripes." I have a problem with the second part of their conjecture as most tigers have black stripes on a predominantly orange background. However, these beetles are indeed predators, and they are at least as great a threat to small insects as free-roaming tigers are to humans.
Fortunately, these are only half-inch devils. Some of the dozen or so species found in this area are brightly colored or marked in striking patterns, and they dash about on graceful long legs, but every one of them has a mouth that would do justice to the Big Bad Wolf. Sickle-shaped mandibles -- side-ways closing jaws -- are ready to grasp any prey foolish enough to approach one of these efficient predators. And each sickle is as long as the width of the beetle's head.
The tiger beetles we were looking for inhabit sandy strands along the creek. These sandbars are generally located at the outside of creek bends so they alternate from one side to the other. Thus, we had to wade back and forth across the creek to reach them, and our wading that day was made more hazardous by the heavy rain of the previous night. I found that making headway against a swift current in chest-deep water and with my feet slipping on the flat shale bottom was indeed a challenge.
So, too, was finding the tiger beetles. We searched for over an hour before we saw any. The day was mostly cloudy, but when the sun finally did appear, so did the beetles. Gall found the first few, but soon I learned the search image, and I could see them standing guard in the middle of open patches of sand.
Unfortunately, finding these little insects still leaves the problem of catching them. Remember, beetles not only run; they also fly. But Gall knew exactly what to do. When the beetles are threatened, they move with lightning speed, but usually in the same way each time. Instead of running, they leap straight up and fly away. The trick is to get the net over them and then to isolate them up in the webbing before they find their way down and out around the rim. By the end of the day, Gall had captured and identified a dozen. All but two retained as museum specimens were then released.
Remarkably, 10 of the 12 turned out to be a rare species seldom found here, and Gall had found a still rarer species -- first for the region since 1936 -- on an earlier trip to the same locale.
To me, this expedition was almost as exciting as a real tiger hunt. Crisscrossing the creek provided some wild moments, but even more exhilarating was finding and capturing the rare beetles. In the process we added to our understanding of the natural world around us.
Who could ask for anything more?