Dashing Tiger Beetles

Have you ever thought about how often beetles get named after other animals? There’s the rhinoceros beetle, giraffe weevil, stag beetle… Then again, there are so many beetle species out there that I’d be surprised to find something that doesn’t have a beetle named after it. There’s a fun game to play when you’re bored: just type “______ beetle” into Google and see if it exists. I just typed in “watermelon beetle” – apparently they’re real and they look like this:

A watermelon beetle by johnvillella on Flickr

Rather than watermelon beetles, today we’re going to discuss tiger beetles, which stand out in the beetle world not so much for their animal-based name but rather for their incredible speed. Which means it is a crime that they aren’t called cheetah beetles (I checked, that name isn’t taken yet).

Meet Cicindela hudsoni, a shimmering green tiger beetle and arguably the fastest animal on the planet. Obviously a cheetah or even a squirrel would beat this tiny beetle in a race, but taking its small stature into account, no one beats this speedy arthropod in terms of its size to speed ratio. C. hudsoni charges its prey at over 5 miles per hour, which is basically the same as you booking it 480mph after the ice cream truck. Another smaller tiger cheetah beetle, Cicindela eburneola, can run at speeds of over 4 miles per hour, which is also impressive considering that it’s smaller than C. hudsoni. In fact, these beetles are so fast that their eyes don’t have enough time to take in the light around them when they sprint, so they have to charge at their meals blind. In all other instances, however, cheetah beetles do have impressive eyesight.

At over 2600 species, cheetah beetles are found all around the globe in a variety of habitats and climates, mostly ranging from deserts to woodland areas. They also prey on a wide variety of other arthropods: basically, if it moves and it’s small enough to be eaten, these guys will eat it. As if their overpowering speed weren’t enough to incapacitate prey on impact, cheetah beetles also possess a powerful set of mandibles that allow them to crush their quarry with ease. So “tiger” wasn’t really too far off the mark.

While it would have been cool if they were spotted or striped like their big cat namesakes, cheetah beetles still sport beautiful, shimmering exoskeletons that earned their subfamily the name Cicindelinae, a combination of Latin roots meaning “glow worm” and “shine.” So not only can cheetah beetles take down prey in a matter of seconds, but they look good doing it.

A dazzling cheetah beetle captured by Nick Goodrum on Flickr

Cheetah beetle larvae may not be as colorful as their parents, but they’re arguably more formidable. Unlike the more active adults, cheetah beetle larvae are ambush predators that hide near the surface of their underground burrows, waiting to clamp their mandibles around any arthropods that wander too close. After a period of up to four years, the cheetah beetle larva will block up its burrow entrance to pupate in peace. Then, after a few weeks, the adult cheetah beetle will emerge to spend the rest of its days (several weeks to several months) wreaking havoc on its fellow arthropods.

Although intimidating to smaller insects, cheetah beetles are nothing to fear for us humans and are actually pretty great to have around. They obviously get rid of a ton of garden pests on the daily, but they also feed other important members of their communities like dragonflies, toads and spiders. Due to their specific needs for burrowing as larvae and maintaining a healthy body temperature, cheetah beetles are also important bioindicator animals that can be studied to assess the health of their habitats.

As mentioned previously, cheetah beetles are pretty widespread, so they’re not uncommon to spot if you know what you’re looking for. The best places to find cheetah beetles are open, sandy areas, or sunny areas around bodies of water. Most cheetah beetles are diurnal, so you’re most likely to see them in the heat of the day from late spring to early fall depending on where you live. Keep an eye out for a shiny insect running around a lot, and try not to spook it with your shadow. It won’t attack you unless you attack it, but it’ll probably fly away if it gets startled.

Just be aware that the cheetah beetle you’re observing might run into you on accident because, you know, the whole running-blind thing. Poor cheetah beetles. They don’t tell you about the downsides to superspeed in the comics.

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