While having a nice, cool beverage in my front yard yesterday, I spotted a strikingly beautiful beetle. For me, it is often nature's most uncomplicated designs that elicit the highest levels of appreciation. Simple arrangements of black and white will cause me to stare in amazement as quickly as any technicolor patterns. I find as much stunning detail in the Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as I do in an after second year male Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) and the Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) will turn my head as quickly as any butterfly I've encountered. It is with that in mind that I present the lovely Texas Ironclad Beetle (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani).
As always, let's start from the beginning. All beetles are insects belonging to the Order Coleoptera. Coleoptera means "sheathed wing", referring to the hardened outer forewing, called elytra. Elytra serve as the protective cover (the sheath) for the hindwings used for flight. As I'm always trying to bring you cool natural history, the Texas Ironclad Beetle, like all other Ironclad beetles and members of the Genus Zopherus, has elytra that are fused together, causing it to be a completely flightless beetle.
Continuing our etymological journey through the names of this beetle, the Genus Zopherus means dark and gloomy. The members of this genus are generally dark in color and, I suppose, may appear gloomy to the casual observer. (I disagree!) The species name nodulosus is given due to the nodes, or small knots on the back of this beetle. It almost looks as though splotches of black paint were dripped upon the back of a clean beetle, with the black paint drying to become the nodules on the exoskeleton. This beetle is, in this naturalist's opinion, a walking work of art rivaling anything Pollock ever produced.
The final name, haldemani, is for the brothers Haldeman. Born in Pennsyvalnia, the brothers were to be enamored by insects their entire lives, with Horace doing much of the collecting in Texas and Mexico while Samuel taught natural history back in their home state. For six years, between 1848 and 1854, Horace collected the majority of his insects (mostly beetles) while stationed in Texas with U.S. Army. Many of the beetles he collected would be during his time spent in the Fort Gates area of Texas, just north of present-day Fort Hood. Horace would collect the beetles and send them to his brother, Samuel, for identification. Occasionally, he would send collections to the one and only John Lawrence LeConte; arguably the finest entomologist in America during that time period and the foremost authority on beetles. It is here that I point out the bird Le Conte's Thrasher (Toxostoma lecontei) was discovered by John Lawrence during an Arizona collection trip and Audubon named the bird Le Conte's Sparrow (Ammodramus leconteii) after him.
You'll notice, the space in Le Conte for the birds' names does not match the spelling "LeConte". Well, based on his signature, John Lawrence LeConte did not put the space in his surname, as his father did. So, I will spell it as he did: LeConte.
The common name Texas Ironclad beetle is just as cool. It is found in a few counties in central Texas and has an exoskeleton so hard, as though clad in iron, that entomologists must first drill a hole into the elytra before they pin a specimen! That's ironclad, if I've ever heard of it! From time-to-time, this beetle is called the Southwestern Ironclad Beetle, but Texas Ironclad seems to the the most widely accepted common name. (Wow! four paragraphs from just the NAME of the beetle!)
Good thing we took a little time on talking about the name of this beetle, because that's where much of the definitive knowledge about this insect stops. As a matter of fact, very little is known about it's biology. We are sure it eats lichens, dead wood and plant material, even taking fungi. We know some specimens have been collected from members of the Pecan (Carya sp.), Oak (Quercus sp.) and Elm (Ulmus sp) families of trees. We also believe that all stages of (Zopherus nodulosus haldemani) eat lichens on dead, or mostly dead, trees. The females seem to lay their eggs in the crevices of the trees and the bark found upon them, providing a highly probable area for the larvae to be able to find and consume lichens. Once more upwardly mobile, the adult beetles are able to walk great distances in order to find food and potential mates. As most beetles find food and mates by pheromones, it is believed the Texas Ironclad beetle does the same. There is also no evidence, whatsoever, that this beetle damages any living plant and it is completely harmless to humans (it doesn't have a sting or bite that would bother a human).
Despite the scant concrete life history knowledge of this beetle, or maybe because of it, I have to smile. That is what we, as naturalists and scientists, thrive upon; the mysteries and the reminder that we don't have it all figured out, yet! I am just grateful that this gorgeous beetle decided to walk across across my yard and allow me to admire it for a while.
One final note, it isn't uncommon for species of Zopherus in Mexico to be bejeweled and decorated to become "living brooches" and animated jewelry. I think it is perfectly pleasing to the eye just the way it is.