Beetle Mania

A rare tiger beetle has become the unlikely face of Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

By Susan J. Tweit

Baked by the sun in summer, snow-dusted and frozen in winter, and shaped by relentless wind year-round, the sea of sand at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado is inhospitable, to say the least. Yet North America’s tallest active dunefield, with sandy waves rising higher than a 70-story building, hides a bounty of underground water—water that supports the flow of nearby creeks that help recycle the sand, maintaining the whole dune system.

With all that water comes a surprising diversity of life: creek-side cottonwood forests, herds of grazing elk, and more than a thousand species of insects and other arthropods, including seven found nowhere else on Earth. But none have risen to fame quite like the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle, or Cicindela theatina—a flashy, half-inch-long predator that reminds visitors why this 234-square-mile park is so special.

“Tiger beetles are entomologist eye-candy,” says Phyllis Pineda Bovin, a park biologist.

“They’re so interesting and colorful that they’re easy to interpret,” adds Melanie Rawlins, the park’s education specialist. “That’s why we shine a spotlight on them as opposed to other insects.”

Bovin began studying the park’s tiger beetles in 1997, when she was conducting biological surveys in and around the dunes for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. Those data—along with her 2002 thesis that included research on this species—have allowed park staff to designate the insect as a poster child for wildlife education.

What they’ve learned is this: The Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle lives in exposed areas of loose sand with a sprinkling of plants like blowout grass and scurf-pea—places where temperatures at the surface of the sand can range from 40 degrees on a chilly morning to 140 degrees during a hot afternoon. The larva—a segmented, bristly creature with an enlarged head—hatches in early summer when the dune surface can be searing hot, then promptly digs a snug, vertical burrow in the cool sand and backs in, emerging from that thermal shelter only to ambush passing prey.

“Most insects are pretty short lived,” says Bovin, meaning their adult lives are often measured in weeks or months. But Great Sand Dunes tiger beetles are different: It takes two-and-a-half years, including two winters in hibernation, for an egg to become an adult. Until then, these creatures inhabit a challenging environment where food is sparse, and spend months at a time underground, waiting out the extremes that unfold above the sand’s surface. Once they reach adult form, beetles are free to run about, hunting food and seeking mates; they can even fly. But they must still adapt their activity to the temperature of their environment, basking in warm sand on chilly mornings or, when temperatures rise, “stilting” to raise their bodies above the hot sand.

Clearly, the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle can be a fascinating little thing—which is why park staff have worked so hard to create awe and wonder around a species that might otherwise be overlooked. Walk into the park’s visitor center, and you won’t just see images of iconic wildlife hanging on the walls—you’ll see an enormous photograph of the park’s tiger beetle, too. And then there are the tiger beetle stickers, tiger beetle portraits on the cover of Junior Ranger booklets, and tiger beetle gear: blue, sparkly helmets with antennae and goggles that kids can wear to experience a beetle’s-eye view.

“I would be surprised if any kid leaves the park without knowing about the tiger beetle,” Rawlins says.

Although not all endemic tiger beetles are so revered, southern Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes boast their own species, as do two isolated dune systems in Idaho. These and other unique tiger beetle species face serious threats from off-road vehicles, reservoir flooding, and development.

In comparison, Cicindela theatina’s entire range falls within protected landscapes: 75 percent in Great Sand Dunes, and 25 percent in the adjacent Medano-Zapata Ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy. Still, some worry that water demands outside these protected areas could hurt the species. So in 2007, the environmental organization WildEarth Guardians filed a petition to list the Great Sand Dunes tiger beetle as federally endangered. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a status review.)

“We are the caretakers of the entire population of the species,” Rawlins says. “If we mess up, it’s gone from Earth forever.” And that’s exactly why she and her colleagues work so hard to make this species stand out: Teaching visitors about the beetle, they believe, inspires respect for this sea of dunes and its unique community of lives.

A plant ecologist-turned-writer, Susan J. Tweit is the author of a dozen books, including her memoir Walking Nature Home.

This article appears in the Fall 2010 issue.

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