Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Another Impressive “Opteran”!

The names of the insect orders are worth learning. They’re so much better than the lists that usually have to describe the groups when we try to avoid multiple syllables. For example:

“Lepidopteran” is much more efficient than saying “butterflies, moths, and skippers.” And “hymenopteran” similarly saves us the time and energy of saying “ants, bees, and wasps.”

After you give the root words a little thought, they make sense and therefore are memorable. As an editor, I appreciate precise, efficient, short ways of saying things. But this discussion is for another post.

Anyway, because of my use of upscale terms for insect groups, Sue has started calling every insect an “Opteran”!

So Saturday morning, I was in the backyard, and Sue was in the front. I looked up, and she was hustling past me to get her camera (again):

“A big, neat opteran just landed by the front doors!”

It had flown right past her and landed on the bricks. Based on its impressive flight, Sue guessed it might be some kind of moth.

Naturally I had to look, and then grab my own little camera. Here’s what we saw!

Do you know what it is? I hadn’t seen one before, but I knew right away what it was from the memorable pictures I’ve seen in my insect guidebooks!

It’s a type of beetle (a coleopteran!) in the family Elateridae, the “click beetles.” They’re called “click beetles” because if they somehow end up on their backs, they can flip clear into the air with an audible “click.” If all works well for them, they will land right side up. If they land on their backs again, they simply do another flip.

This individual looked like it had gotten out of a few tough scrapes already. See how its poor right-front leg is amputated in mid-tibia? And one of the antennae has also been halved.

This particular species of click beetle is the famous “eyed elater,” instantly recognizable by its large size and the big eyespots on its thorax. They aren’t really eyes; apparently they function like the eyespots on butterflies and moths (lepidopterans!) to make a potential predator hesitate long enough to allow the insect to escape.

The real eyes are positioned near the base of each beautifully serrated antenna.

Now, although it must have been breathtaking to see in flight, this insect didn’t seem particularly “elated” about anything itself. I haven’t been able to find anything to back this up, but I think the name of the bug and its family refer to the “flipping” behavior. On a fundamental, etymological level, elate is from Latin words that mean “to carry out,” “to elevate,” “to lift up.” It’s related to our verbs tolerate and bear. For an insect that literally “elevates” itself, the name makes sense etymologically and entomologically!

By the way, before you grab your can of Raid, listen up: A few species of click beetles (especially the larvae) are important pests of crops, but this one is considered “beneficial” since its larvae devour the injurious types. Think hard before you kill bugs!


Anonymous said...

My son plans to do "insect study" merit badge at Boy Scout camp this summer. One of the requirements is to find species from at least four orders. I am going to suggest that he read your article!

Julianna Schroeder said...


Only four orders? That's all? Goodness, what is this world coming to. I he finds many more than that!

By the way, my beloved natural history writer/entomologist/photographer Edwin Way Teale wrote the 1944 edition of the Insect Life merit badge book, and I want a copy of it so badly--just because he wrote it! (See here: http://www.amazon.com/Insect-Merit-Series-Scouts-America/dp/B000LC6P10/ref=tmm_pap_title_0).

A wonderful Internet resource is "What's That Bug," a site that I could poke around on for days. They have a great, pro-insect attitude that is a wonderful corrective to the entomophobia so prevalent in our wussy society these days.

Another hint: learning how to use the closeup setting(s) on a digital autofocus camera is a beautiful thing.

Good luck with the merit badge!

Your sister,