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The search for Pytho strictus, the lost beetle of Mt. Washington

It was an April 9, 2007 email from Japanese researcher/collector Ueno Teruhisa that started it all. He said he had just received a pair of Pytho nivalis, an extremely rare Japanese species of beetle family Pythidae, the Dead Log Beetles. He said he would dearly love to trade one of them for an American member of the same species group, also extremely rare, Pytho strictus.

I contacted a couple of people I thought might be aware of someone willing to trade, one being Dr. Darren Pollock who had authored the American Beetles section on Pythidae and had done a study on genus Pytho. Pollock had actually found P. strictus larvae in New York state back in the 1980’s that he succeeded in rearing to maturity. However, my efforts on Teruhisa’s behalf turned up no specimens for trade.

Then Teruhisa dropped the fatal bait before me: “Based on the Darren’s paper, there is an old record (by LeConte and other) of the species from New Hampshire (at Mt. Washington).” I guess I was hooked from that moment. It resulted in me making five trips north for all or portions of 14 days in attempt to rediscover the lost species.

Meanwhile the other person I had contacted, Albert Allen, sent me a copy of Pollock’s paper on Pytho, which listed reported finds of P. strictus, including those on Mt. Washington. Somehow I gathered from these accounts that the species favors higher altitudes.


Having collected Pytho niger and Pytho planus near where I live in southern New Hampshire, I knew that any search for P. strictus would involve stripping a lot of bark on national forest lands and that I would need to get permission from the U. S. Forest Service. I also consulted Prof. Donald Chandler at the University of New Hampshire concerning what efforts, if any, had been made to collect species in the Pytho habitat. Don said most higher-altitude collecting in the White Mountain National Forest had focused on pitfall trapping and sweeping in alpine meadows in his experience, and many litter samples had also been collected for Berlese funnel extraction. Flight intercept traps in wooded areas that might collect pythids were not used. He recommended Jefferson Notch as a more accessible search area near Mt. Washington. I also dropped the idea of a search into Tom Murray’s email. He was interested.

Working through White Mountain Forest biologist Leighlan Prout I drafted a permit request for my project in which I took care to point out my sensitivity to the public relations aspects: No bark stripping would be done in view of roads and trails, nor would whole stands of dead trees be found stripped of bark in my wake. I also described benefits to science that might arise from my quest and promised to share my results, such as species counts and photo images, with the regional forest service office. I asked Leighlan if she could recommend any other search locales. She indicated the Mt. Washington Auto Road as a possibility.

After answering all of Leighlan’s questions about quantitative aspects (length of search, parties involved, number of trees/logs to be stripped, etc.) I received a letter of permission from the deputy forest supervisor. I immediately laid plans to visit Jefferson Notch, thinking that P. strictus would have pupated and eclosed already as Pytho niger often does, ready to gnaw its way through the bark and fly at the first sign of warmth.

Trip one

Finally on May 5, 2007, Tom Murray and I got an early start (about 5:45 AM) and headed north, not knowing exactly where Jefferson Notch was located. I had done a little online research, however, and had seen an image of the forest service sign erected there that assured me that it marked the highest elevation reached by any public highway in New Hampshire (just over 3,000 ft.). If it was on a public highway, it had to be on a highway map, right? Wrong!

Several stops to ask directions and study maps finally led us to a gravel/dirt road with a massive bright yellow steel boom padlocked across it. This “highway” was obviously closed for the winter season, which I eventually realized ended Memorial Day weekend. We had brought snowshoes to strap on when we hopped out of the car at Jefferson Notch but, simultaneously emboldened by the lack of snow at the gate and discouraged at the thought of packing in extra and likely unneeded weight, we left them in Tom’s car and started walking 5.2 miles uphill, collecting specimens at numerous rest stops along the way. Finally we reached the notch a little after 1 PM and had some lunch before beginning our search at the target elevation.

It was a brief and costly search in what I reasoned was prime Pytho strictus habitat. The snow was gone from the road but quite deep in places in the woods, making it difficult to get around. Ironically, the snowshoes would have been little help in the close thickets and log fields we attempted to traverse. Tom ripped his pants and cracked his 100mm lens by whacking it on either a rock or the hatchet, a nice sharp one that he had already cut himself with. He was more than ready to head back down the mountain at 3 PM.

The good points of that first trip were that I gained a new beetle family on my personal list, Lymexylidae, and added another Pytho species, Pytho seidlitzi, that Tom had already photographed in adult form. It resembles the brown phase of P. planus but has a more squared-off pronotum. The ones I found were all larvae that I was able to key from illustrations in Pollock’s paper. I also found a couple specimens of the very rare rove beetle, Olisthaerus substriatus.

Pytho seidlitzi

Trip two

I made the next two trips to Jefferson Notch by myself, staying each time at the Jefferson Notch Motel in order to get an early start up the trail, er, highway. On May 12 the gate still barred the way but I stayed at the notch till about 5 PM, arriving back at my car by a little after 8 PM. I found plenty of Pytho niger and seidlitzi, including adults of P. niger, more of the rare roves, O. substriatus, and added another beetle family, Monotomidae, to my personal list.

Another plus from May 12 were a pair of bolitophagine tenebrionids, Eleates depressus. They were in a crevice between a Fomitopsis pinicola conk and the bark. I didn’t think to save their conk but was able to introduce them to another one of that species I had brought home. Larvae are said to be undescribed for this species so I hoped they were male and female and might produce some offspring. Indeed, Sept. 3 I discovered a larva in the conk that looks right for a member of this beetle group so a description may at last be possible.

Trip three

I did not return till May 26-27, arriving at the motel on a very warm Saturday afternoon. I told the owners of my activities and they encouraged me to check out their swimming pool, which was an impressive bug magnet. Sure enough, their recently used long-handled skimmer net contained a number of beetle species, some alive, some drowned. I fished others out of the pool by hand. More were swirling around inside the automatic skimmer.

I asked for and obtained permission to try my luck with my mercury vapor lights in an area likely to be seen by lots of beetles but no other guests. While standing with the owner sizing up the site I was able to snatch a very colorful click beetle, Selatosomus cruciatus, out of the air as it flew by.

I took a short ride to the bottom of the Jefferson Notch road and was elated to find the gate swung wide. I drove on up, noticing campers had already grabbed spots on little spurs off the road. I searched and collected till about 8 PM before driving back down to the motel. That night proved too chilly for my lights however. I got a few gnats, some decent moths that I declined to photograph (I had the wrong camera with me), and one solitary scarab beetle.

Next day brought a rich harvest of Pytho niger and seidlitzi for my Pytho rearing efforts, a colorful little dung beetle, Aphodius fimetarius, in a pile of moose dung, and a neat but smelly high-altitude carabid, Pterostichus punctatissimus that is said to be “uncommonly collected.” I also added yet another beetle family to my personal list, Zopheridae, apparently collecting two from a dry soft conk. (I didn’t spot the second one till I got home.) Still no Pytho strictus however.

Aphodius fimetarius

Change of venue

At this point I began to wonder if P. strictus might exist only in a small pocket on Mt. Washington itself. After all, the old reports had originated from the sides of the peak, not from nearby ridges like Jefferson Notch. These reports occurred when Mt. Washington began to experience a heavier load of visitors, during and shortly after the privately financed construction of the carriage road, later to become the Mt. Washington Auto Road.

Mt. Washington is New England’s highest peak and has a reputation for treacherous winds (231 mph was once recorded there and 150 mph is not considered unusual) and precipitous temperature plunges that take the lives of winter hikers/campers every few years. It’s best to always have warmer clothing and rain gear handy for rapid changes in the weather.

Trip four

I made plans with Tom to visit the mountain June 8, driving partway up the Auto Road, which is restricted to passenger vehicles except for annual bike, foot, and car races. Both the grade and the toll are steep. It’s $20 minimum (more for passengers) and first gear all the way up and down. We stopped at several sites along the eight-mile route on what proved to be an exceptionally warm and quiet (not windy) day. I found Pytho larvae but they were all Pytho seidlitzi, causing me to wonder if there was some peculiar secret of the mountain that might explain why Pytho niger wasn’t also present. On a later visit I found plenty of both, ending that line of speculation.

At one stop in the lower krummholz forest zone, where the trees begin to be stunted and crooked, sculpted by the forces of fierce wind and bitter winter cold, we investigated an obviously year-round hillside seep with a deep, spongey mat of velvety moss. I found another stinky Pterostichus punctatissimus under a rock there and Tom caught an Elaphrus and a byrrhid. Pushing my way into the woods I was pleased to find that Pytho lived as high as the lower krummholz. (On my next visit I even found them in the middle krummholz.)

Krummholz zone

Summit discovery

From our vantage point we were able to see that the peak, which we had not planned to visit, was entirely free of clouds so we decided to head on up to the top. It was a fortuitous decision. The summit was crawling with millions of insects representing four orders that I saw. Most noticeable were several similar-looking pentatomid species, followed in prevalence by flies, beetles, and Ichneumon wasps. Although outnumbered in raw volume, beetles appeared to be most speciose by far.

A twenty-year veteran staffer in the summit observatory building told me later that there are usually four or five days a year there with similar weather conditions when many insects swarm to the summit looking for sex partners. He said last year, however, there were a great many calm days and this hilltop lekking was a regular occurence.

While many summit visitors must have been revulsed by the sight of bugs everywhere, Tom and I were in bug collecting heaven. We collected there for an hour or more. I declined to pose by the summit sign but had Tom shoot a couple posed shots of me in my beetle hunting garb and gear. While there I collected a big, feisty ground beetle, Calosoma frigidum, and a number of Orsodacne atra that gave me yet another new family, Orsodacnidae. My pooter was seething with live specimens and Tom's collecting vials were overloaded by the time we left.

We ate a late lunch at the summit then stopped at one more location on the way back down the mountain. I found a bunch of Small Carrion Beetles, Catops paramericanus, beneath some loose bark on top of which was an old scat deposited by some small carnivore. It was loaded with mouse remains. I figured these beetles comprised a brood that mama Catops had laid on the scat when it was a good deal fresher. Earlier and lower on the mountain we collected a number of small, tan beetles on assorted flower blooms that turned out to be Omaliine rove beetles of the genus Eusphalerum, pollen eaters in a family of predators and fungus eaters. Included with them was an odd weevil that turned out to be Neocimberis pilosus in the family Nemonychidae, yet another new beetle family for me! Again, loads of neat finds but no Pytho strictus.

As we made our way south from Mount Washington I figured I was done with the search, at least for this year. It was a short-lived decision. I began to think what I might want to do for vacation time this year and in no time I had hatched plans to spend an additional week exploring the various elevations of Mt. Washington.

Catops paramericanus

hillside seep

Trip five

I reserved a room at the appropriately named Budget Inn in Berlin, NH. (The name surely refers to their undersized repair budget.) Saturday morning June 30 I asked at the toll gate if I could buy a week’s pass, explaining that I was there with a U. S. Forest Service permit to conduct a week-long search for the long-time-no-see Pytho strictus. What I got was far better than a one-week pass. They advised me to seek a toll waiver from the manager of the enterprise the following Monday, saying it was common practice to give waivers to workers on special projects.

I paid my $20 and proceeded to collect so many specimens that first day that I spent all Sunday shooting live specimens and processing images, never getting to the mountain. Monday the manager was out but his assistant wrote a one-day pass for me and the following day, after an excellent meeting with manager Howie Wemyss, I was given a pass good through my last day.

As it turned out, Howie was already aware of my efforts, having read my post on the Summit Blog about the bug convention on the peak of June 8th in which I also mentioned my Pytho strictus search lower on the mountain. He had responded already to my blog entry saying that the bugs show up whenever it is mild and relatively still at the summit, asking me to email him. Instead I conveniently showed up in person. It gave him a chance to ask me for a copy of the same findings report I'll prepare for the U.S. Forest Service and it gave me a chance to grill him about any conditions in the past 140 years (fires, clear-cutting) that might have caused Pytho strictus to vanish. He had no direct answer but did mention the “year without a summer” (1816) caused by a volcanic eruption the prior year that pumped millions of tons of fine particles into the upper atmosphere where it encircled the globe, blocking enough sunlight to cause a major tree die-off at the higher elevations of Mt. Washington. I’ll have more to say about this event in my conclusions.

During my week on Mt. Washington I continued to find P. niger and seidlitzi from low transition zone through middle krummholz zone. I learned that the conifer population there is dominated by balsam fir, Abies balsamea, and black spruce, Picea mariana. I had already determined which conifer is host to both common Pytho species. Now I had a name for it, Picea mariana or black spruce. I never saw a single Pytho under the bark of Abies balsamea or balsam fir although I did find an errant P. seidlitzi beneath the bark of a downed maple. I had to stare hard to make sure I wasn’t seeing a pyrochroid larva, often found in abundance beneath bark on dead deciduous trees and logs. One thing I did find under balsam fir bark that gave me momentary pause was a Cucujus clavipes larva. I found plenty of these under deciduous bark, including one standing dead tree loaded with them. I could tell there were plenty in there when I began finding their shed skins.

Pytho host tree: Black Spruce bark and needles

No Pytho here: Balsam Fir bark and needles

In light of the tree species preference established above it is not surprising that the greatest concentrations of P. niger and seidlitzi lie among the highest population density of black spruce, which I found at about 2,000 feet elevation on Mt. Washington. It is possible that my impression of P. strictus being a high-altitude species is entirely wrong and they are instead likeliest to be found wherever the rest of the genus hangs out.

This latest trip led to my fifth new beetle family from this area, Artematopodida. Other notable finds from my weeklong search include finding several instances of the zopherid Phellopsis obcordata hanging on the undersides of Fomitopsis pinicola conks in broad daylight. I had read that they stayed out of sight by day and visited their conks by night. I discovered millimeter-long Ptiliidae or Featherwinged Beetles in moist spots under both black spruce and balsam fir bark. Also I used my sweep net on flower blooms a couple times, collecting great numbers of Eusphalerum. I must say that it still seems strange to rake in rove beetles with a sweep net. I had hoped to net another omaliine rove beetle genus, Pelecomalium, which Margaret Thayer said could show up with Eusphalerum.

While there I decided to hike up to a geographic feature called Low’s Bald Spot on my AMC map to catch a view across the Great Gulf Wilderness, where I was prohibited from collecting or stripping bark. On the way back I made an excellent find, an all-girl Appalachian Mountain Club trail-building crew. They looked very healthy and capable in their hard hats, heavy work boots, gloves and tank tops, and they appeared to be having as much fun as I was. They were ripping out old elevated timbers and installing new ones across soggy stretches of the trail.

In mid afternoon I buzzed up the route to the fog-shrouded summit. There was little to see, bugs included. But I spoke with the previously mentioned staff person who related his experiences with the mild-weather bug invasions. In an interesting twist, he said that a few days after such bug invasions there are frequently flying squirrel invasions. Staffers trap the squirrels and transport them to lower elevations since they make a nuisance of themselves otherwise, getting into garbage and the like. One day recently they had caught 25. The big question is why do they come and is it in any way related to the bug invasion? I think I have it figured out.

Flying squirrels are partially insectivorous. What happens after the bugs mate at the summit? Well, the females need to beat it back to their lower elevation habitats so they can lay their eggs. The males are not needed anymore. I would not be surprised if their sperm packets contained high glucose levels that females absorb to help them power back on down the hill before the next freezing fog comes along and stuns them into mobility. If so, that would leave the male depleted of energy, unable to go anywhere. The flying squirrels are tapped into the cycle and arrive to gobble up the tastier dead and dying male bugs.

Next question, how do the flying squirrels get there? Do they travel several miles on foot just for a good feed? I could see how they might soar for great distances on the down trip, carried by the famous wind gusts at the peak, but what about the up trip?

Conclusions and speculations

Although I failed to find larvae or adults of Pytho strictus in the areas searched, those areas make up a miniscule percentage of the supposed habitat suitable to the species on Mt. Washington and vicinity. One cannot reliably find an extremely rare beetle with a week or two of searching. P. strictus could therefore yet exist in limited numbers in select areas of Mt. Washington and environs. A more interesting question than whether P. strictus still lives on these slopes might be, “How did it come to be so rare in the first place?”

If I am right that P. strictus favors the higher altitudes, consider what might have happened to it throughout its range during the “year with no summer” in 1816. Pytho larvae are able to withstand the bitter temperature plunges of winter on Mt. Washington but a winter lasting from say October of 1815 through May of 1817 might seriously diminish their survival rate. Certainly it was too much for the trees in a wide band around the mountain. Of course the grand die-off of evergreens would have produced a superabundance of habitat in the coming years for those that did survive that weirdly long winter, but that glut of food may itself have brought the species to near extinction.

It is not enough to have an available food supply. Male and female beetles must meet and mate. Pythos are not hilltop lekkers that instinctively meet at prearranged sites. They meet at dead logs that smell right to their antennal sensors. At any point in a mature forest there are logs of various ages on the forest floor, only a minor percentage of which are of suitable age for Pythos to lay eggs. However, if every tree that was killed in 1816 “matured” to Pytho perfection in 3 – 5 years, imagine the difficulty of the already sparse P. strictus meeting a mate by finding and waiting patiently on a log for another to show up. A massive field of ripe logs would mean that a beetle would have to search a great many logs to find a mate and they are probably not wired to do that.

No hookups would mean no offspring to capitalize on the enormous wealth of food supply. The already diminished population would be dealt a perilous blow by failure to meet and breed, leaving just a paltry few individuals to carry on the gene pool and be further disadvantaged by being forced out of their preferred higher altitudes. It would take many, many decades for the forest to again creep uphill and mature enough to yield a new crop of suitable dead logs for Pytho strictus to move into. It was likely a one-two-three punch combination: 18-20-month winter, failure to meet and breed, and a hundred years or more to rebuild habitat. It would be like this throughout the higher elevations where P. strictus had prospered. Well, it’s just a theory, but it might contain a kernel or two of truth about the rarity and perhaps disappearance of Mt. Washington’s lost beetle.

Specimen use

One longhorned beetle specimen I collected July 2 from a dead tree in the middle krummholz zone has gained attention from federal and state authorities after being said by Dr. Francesco Vitali of Italy to resemble the European tree nematode vector Monochamus sutor. A USDA alert had been issued on the species, thought to pose a significant threat to North American Forests should it ever find its way to this continent. Although probably a color variant of the native Monochamus scutellatus, as of this August 18 edit it is due to be shipped to a US specialist with ties to the USDA for closer examination and comparison.

At least four species found during this quest are going to be used in DNA sequencing: Olisthaerus substriatus, Pytho niger, Catops paramericanus, and Pterostichus punctatissimus. The first three are part of the Beetle Tree of Life project to establish stable taxa and degree of relatedness by comparison of DNA samples. They will enter that project via Dr. Margaret Thayer of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. The last is being sent to Dr. Kipling Will at U.C. Berkeley, an expert on genus Pterostichus. All such specimens have been preserved in 90% ethyl alcohol and stored in a freezer to protect the DNA structure prior to testing.

In addition, Thayer and Dr. Donald Chandler at University of New Hampshire will each receive a Pterostichus punctatissimus specimen for their collections. Chandler will also receive two Olisthaerus substriatus and any other specimens he requests. I have preserved or am attempting to rear representatives of most species I found. Albert Allen will receive a pair of adult Pytho seidlitzi assuming they mature successfully and Richard Lareau has already received a specimen of Olisthaerus substriatus. If any Eleates depressus larvae are discovered in the conk I gave them, they will be sent to Kojun Kanda for description. As for the specimens of Pytho strictus, I presume they will be held by the boreal forest of Mt. Washington awhile longer.

Some of the specimens from this project

coleopteran larva
unknown larva
Bembidion sp.
Calosoma frigidum
Elaphrus sp.
Gatrellarius honestus
Loricera pilicornis
Pterostichus punctatissimus
Pterostichus adstrictus
Sphaeroderus stenostomus lecontei
Atrecus megacephalus
Olisthaerus substriatus
Phloeonomus laesicollis
Sepedophilus sp.
Agathidium sp.
Anisotoma sp.
Anisotoma sp.
Catops paramericanus
byrrhid sp.
Cytilus alternatus
Denticollis denticornis
Hypnoidus abbreviatus
Selatosomus cruciatus
Eanus sp.
Oxygonus obesus
Agriotes fucosus
Pseudanostirus triundulata
Dalopius vagus
Plateros sp.
Dictyopterus aurora
Malthodes sp.
Podabrus sp.
Rhagonycha sp.
Derospidea brevicollis
Anthophylax attenuatus
Evodinus monticola
Hyperplatys maculata
Judolia montivagans
Monochamus marmorator
Monochamus sp.
Pogonocherus penicillatus
Rhagium inquisitor
Eleates depressus
Bolitotherus cornutus
Henotiderus obesulus
Glischrochilus confluentus
Epuraea sp.
Anatis mali
Mulsantina hudsonica
Pytho niger
Pytho seidlitzi
Ceutorhynchus sp.

Misc. families
Aulonothroscus sp.
Dorcatoma sp.
Cerylon unicolor
Phellopsis obcordata
Rhizophagus sp.
Elateroides lugubris
Orsodacne atra
Eurypogon niger
Cucujus clavipes
Aphodius fimetarius
Neocimberis elongatus
Paromalus teres
Xylita livida
Byturus unicolor
kateretid sp.
dytiscid sp.
Rhinosimus viridiaeneus
Laemophloeus biguttatus
Apion sp.
Anaspis flavipennis
Lytta sp.

Other arthropods
Ptenothrix marmorata
Entomobrya confusa
Entomobrya nivalis
empidid sp.
Sehirus cinctus

(This list will be expanded to include all species posted from these trips by either Tom Murray or me.)

Mt. Washington has a special bee too
Lasioglossum (Evylaeus) boreale Svensson, Ebmer, and Sakagami, 1977

Otherwise known from Arctic Canada and Scandanavia.

If you can legally collect small black bees please do.

I 'm sure if one flew into my pooter
I wouldn't get into trouble for it :-) I think I'm done on Mt. Washington for a couple years though. Next summer is Ecuador, so maybe the summer after that.

"Next summer is Ecuador"
The small black bees there are even better

I recommend you visit the far south near Loja and also the dry areas in Manabi Prov.

I won't promise anything
as my primary goal will be to buy some jungle land, with the secondary goal of collecting/photographing beetles. But if you can steer me to an image or two of the bees in question I'll be more inclined to nab one or two for you :-)

What a cool report! I'd love to do something like that... though I live in Kansas so helping is probably out of the question ;-)

Thanks, Will.
I had fun writing it and will be altering and adding to it for some time to come.

additional references
1. image of type
2. Canadian record - pages 39, 41 [map],42, 47-8, host listed as Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) - did you check this? Looks like a long overlooked specimen.
3. GSMNP record - row 1652, ID by AJM [Adriean J. Mayor?] - the specimen may be in the park collection or at LSU and could have detailed collection data including GPS.

This may not turn out to be so rare after all - how many people actually collect this group, even by chance? and of those, how many would be able to ID it to sp. if they did? In addition, even though it was collected there, it may turn out that Mt Washington is actually a marginal habitat for this.

Thanks, Phillip.
I actually linked to the MCZ type image of P. strictus early in the article but it's good to have it here also. I had also seen Majka's paper showing a P. strictus find along the coast in the maritimes. In his range chart, however, he listed only New Hampshire for the species. Pollock reported finds in Maine and New York state as well. I either forgot or never knew of the find in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I'll contact Adriean to see about the GPS data since I'm curious about the altitude of the find.

If P. strictus is an obligate on pine species, Mt. Washington *is* an inhospitable place for it since I failed to see a single pine tree there. My guess though is that that's just a database of one: the log species Darren Pollock found his larvae in. I've found P. niger on both pine and spruce.

If I were just looking for the species, I would go to one of the locales where P. strictus has been more recently collected. However my ambition was to find it on or near Mt. Washington in New Hampshire , unlikely though that might be after 138 intervening years of no reported finds there.

In view of the odds, I doubt I would have spent the time and money were it not for my justified expectation of finding in the process a lot of species that were new to me at those higher elevations. Considering that I added six new beetle families to my personal list as a result of this project I would have to say it was well worthwhile. I have a great many images yet to process and post as time permits.

they sound like great
trips - always worthwhile for all the reasons you suggest. As a rule, I don't believe there are that many truly rare beetles, just poorly understood ones. I almost never seem to find that "rare" beetle when I go after it specifically. By all means, keep hunting - and I won't be shocked if one day you find it down the road!