Treasures in the Trans-Pecos

This past Monday found my family and I, along with Michael Smith, staying in Alpine, Texas in the upper Chihuahuan Desert, and it was here, on a walk from the hotel pool to the room, I stopped to pick up a small yellow-orange scarab that was lying on the ground by the entrance door. It was Euphoria castleberryi, one of the rarest beetles in Texas. Few naturalists have ever heard of it, and far fewer have laid eyes on one. It is so uncommon that an image search on bugguide.net will show only three specimens, all found in neighboring Jeff Davis county. The included literature states that 21 specimens occur in collections from the month of June, “plus a few July-August records”, with the type reference dating back to 1937. It also states that “Texas Parks & Wildlife considers this to be a species of greatest conservation need.”

While I was aware of the beetle’s existence here, I had never dreamed that I would actually get to see one, let alone stumble across one without even looking for it on an otherwise insignificant walk to change out of my swim trunks. It is moments like this that can turn even every-day, mundane activities into moments of wonder for a naturalist: a bird that has somehow escaped years on your lifelist suddenly winging its way from one place to another as you glance up at the sky in the grocery store parking lot; a rare orchid growing at trailside on a hike in a place you have visited a hundred times; a tropical migrant butterfly on a bloom in your flowerbed. Trips can be planned and sightings predicted by scrutinous study of habitat, season of peak activity, and habits of the species desired, but it is little spontaneous moments of unexpected discovery that really add flavor to a naturalist’s life.

Ironically, I could have made reservations at the Davis Mountains Resort (the sited locale of the few specimens of Castleberry’s flower scarab previously collected), hiked across the landscape in the heat of the day, poring over flowers with my eyes burning and squinted, attempting to pick out their inconspicuous pattern, repeating the process for days, with my chances at success minimal at best, and most likely walked away still not having seen a single one. Heaven knows I have planned entire week-long trips searching for other creatures in just such fashion. Yet the random decision to take my son for a swim instead of going hiking at all brought me into direct contact with one, and in a hotel parking lot of all places.

Euphoria castleberryi, Alpine Texas

On the other end of the spectrum, the evening found us hiking the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains, with my compulsive desire to locate two additional species of scarabs now in full swing after the Castleberry’s discovery. The higher elevations of the montane regions of Texas provide a specialized habitat where certain species of organisms exist that do not occur on the desert floor. These areas, collectively known as “sky islands”, typically enjoy a cooler, wetter, and more verdant isolation from the typical dry heat and aridity of the desert. Conifers such as pinyon pine and alligator juniper thrive in these conditions, as does a particular species of beetle that feeds on them. This is Chrysina gloriosa, a member of the genus of Ruteline beetles known as jewel scarabs. It has been described as “the most beautiful beetle in North America” in Simon & Schuster’s ‘Insects of the World’, and is highly sought by collectors for both its beauty and localized distribution. I had found its cousin, the larger and fluorescent green Wood’s jeweled scarab (Chrysina woodi), on several occasions in the Davis and Guadalupe mountains to the north, but never had I laid my eyes on a gloriosa.

Montane habitat on the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains

But today I was determined to change that. While I hadn’t included them in the original itinerary when planning the trip (we had actually headed to the Trans-Pecos after abandoning the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas due to an extensive drought that had made wildlife viewing dismally meager) they had certainly come to mind when deciding where we should hike earlier that morning. After all, it was June, their peak season, and the Lost Mine trail was prime habitat. So while Michael took his typical leisurely stroll along the trail, taking advantage of the benches and birdsong, Amber and Zev and I climbed toward the summit, scanning the outer branches of the trailside junipers for the elusive glorious scarab. Amber possesses a particularly keen eye for detail, as well as some type of supernatural ability to find uncommon species, and in a very short time she had picked up a couple of pieces of some glorious scarabs that birds had left over from breakfast on the trail. These were the worst of teasers, but they atleast confirmed the beetles’ presence here, and served to further goad my search into top gear.

A wing cover from the illustrious beetle in question, found along the Lost Mine Trail

As the trail began to ascend to steeper heights, I saw a glimmer of blue flash from a bush in the setting sunlight, and soon had another spectacular species of scarab in hand. This was Euphoria fuscocyanea, a frequenter of fermenting fruit that we had found with some regularity on this same trail last year. While some entomologists consider this to be only a color variant of the more common Euphoria fulgida, others consider this localized montane variety as a separate species. Whatever the taxonomy, it was a welcome find.

Euphoria fuscocyanea as viewed in situ and in hand in optimal sunlight

Eventually the sun fell behind the mountaintops, and we turned back and headed down the path in an attempt to make it back to the trailhead before it got completely dark. We continued seeing wildlife, even more so as dusk took over, and stopped to observe southwestern fence lizards and birds among the trees and rock scree. At one point Zev and I sat atop a large boulder overlooking the valley below, where the mountains of Mexico stood in the distance, their silhouettes enshrouded in the foggy haze of light brought on by the setting sun. We offered up a prayer of gratitude to the Creator for this place and moment and time, and I think I remember throwing in something about finding gloriosa as well, if it wasn’t too much trouble.

We found Michael sitting on a bench some distance up from the trailhead, writing in his notebook and enjoying the solitude. By this time it was past nine o’clock, and I was scanning the juniper branches by aide of flashlight. Fifteen minutes later the trail began to wind back down towards the parking lot, and as we rounded the last bend my truck came into view. I had all but given up hope when I saw a flying beetle circle lazily around the lower branches of the very last juniper, flashes of silver and emerald glinting from its extended wing covers in the dying afterglow of the sun.

“Gloriosa!” I shouted. “Get the aerial net!”

I know. I know. It is frowned upon, ill advised, and probably not entirely legal to sweep a beetle out of the air with a net in the Big Bend National Park, but I really didn’t see much harm in it. It wasn’t like I had toted the net along on the trail. It just so happened to be in the back of my truck, and Amber and Zev were already there. I hadn’t come all this way and done so much searching just to see a glimpse of a gloriosa, so I threw caution to the wind and netted the beetle easily out of the air. Before I could fish it out two more appeared from the surrounding foliage and circled around the tree. It was a gloriosa bonanza!

I reached down into the net and my fingers closed at long last upon the “most beautiful beetle in North America.” It had been on my life list since I was in elementary school, and now here it was in the flesh, the bright green exoskeleton striped with indented vertical strips of silver that literally looked indistinguishable from highly polished metal. It was even more magnificent in real life. Everyone crowded around this remarkable, unmatched jewel of coleopteran perfection, marveling at its beauty before taking photos. Then Zev and I took it back to the juniper tree to rejoin its brethren.

Chrysina gloriosa, diamond of the Lost Mine

From an unplanned encounter with the rare Castleberry’s scarab to a first class ticket to a gloriosa party around the juniper tree at the trailhead of the Lost Mine, it had been an exciting day in the Big Bend region of Texas, an area that never fails to provide the naturalist with moments of elation and discovery.

4 thoughts on “Treasures in the Trans-Pecos

  1. Thanks Clint for another amazing look into Texas and its smaller wildlife. And the Glorisa – even a very quick google scholar search show that to be a very unique beetle.

    Like

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