The Science of Sustainability

Braking for Beetles: When Recreation and Conservation Converge

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Ohlone tiger beetle

The endangered Ohlone tiger beetle, found only in Santa Cruz County, sports a forbidding set of mandibles, befitting this top insect predator. (Image: Tara Cornelisse)

Wildlife biologists joke that they chose biology because they liked animals more than people, but now spend more time dealing with humans than wildlife. As biodiversity loss proceeds at an unprecedented rate—25% of all mammals alone are at risk of extinction—it’s not surprising that biologists increasingly focus on finding ways to protect what’s left. And protection strategies inevitably involve managing human behavior.

Wolf experts typically spend a disproportionate chunk of their time trying to convince people why taking even minor steps to coexist with carnivores—like mounting fladry (usually red flags attached to twine) along fences or placing livestock inside at night to thwart opportunistic predation—can benefit both wolves and humans. Lion biologists do much the same, while also reassuring anxious park visitors that lions really would prefer to make a meal of deer over people.

Biologists have one thing in their favor when doing public outreach for such charismatic carnivores. If people don’t have time to learn the ecological benefits of keeping lions and wolves on the landscape, they can easily appreciate the aesthetic value of having them around.

It’s a bit tougher for biologists like Tara Cornelisse to count on conservation aesthetics when making her case to protect another fearsome carnivore: the Ohlone tiger beetle.

An ambush predator like its namesake, the tiger beetle relies on agility and keen eyesight to find, stalk, and pounce on potential prey, which includes ants, spiders, smaller beetles, flies, and whatever else it can catch. Tiger beetle larvae pop from their burrow like a mini jack-in-the-box to nab invertebrate passersby.

ohlone tiger beetle

Prey caught in the beetle’s powerful, sickle-shaped toothy jaws have little chance of escaping. (Image: Maycee Hash)

Cornelisse’s endangered study subject, discovered in 1987, now lives in just five isolated grassland parcels in Santa Cruz County. Though Cornelisse, a PhD candidate in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz, sees nothing but beauty in the “gorgeous" little iridescent green beetle, it’s not likely to make the cover of National Geographic anytime soon. And then there’s the human problem.

Outdoor recreation is a leading cause of declines in endangered and threatened species on public lands. When Cornelisse started studying the tiger beetle, hikers and mountain bikers were viewed as their biggest threat, especially after a 2002 news story blamed bikers for making mincemeat out of the endangered arthropods as they blasted down trails in sensitive beetle habitat. As a result, trails were closed to protect the beetles, pitting humans against endangered species once again.

Tiger beetles love disturbed landscapes, once a major feature of their coastal prairie habitat thanks to now extinct vegetation-trampling woolly mammoths, elk, and other ungulates, and to seasonal fires managed by Native Americans. The loss of grazers and the spread of invasive species means beetles increasingly struggle to find the bare ground they need to thrive.

But Cornelisse sees a potential path toward tiger beetle recovery with help from some unlikely allies. Recreational trails appear to be replacing habitat lost to invasive grasses. And that means the species’ greatest hope of survival may rest with the very people who accidentally squash individuals on trails.

Ironically, trail closures lasted only a few years after anecdotal reports that spreading vegetation had reclaimed coveted bare-ground habitat. Since beetles appear to depend on recreational trails to hunt and find mates, Cornelisse is trying to figure out how to keep trails open while reducing beetle mortality.

Toward that end, she worked with Watsonville high school science teacher Bill Callahan to interview hikers and bikers alongside trails. She wanted to know if people would change their habits if they knew that doing so would benefit an endangered insect.

ohlone tiger beetle

Ohlone tiger beetles need bare ground to hunt, find mates, and regulate their body temperature. Recreational trails may help replace habitat lost to invasive grasses and the absence of natural landscape disturbance and fires–as long as bikers follow posted rules aimed at reducing beetle casualties. (Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Using cookies and water to lure folks away from their recreational activities long enough for the survey, Cornelisse and Callahan asked them a set of questions to determine their knowledge of the beetle and recreational impacts, and whether they valued its conservation and would comply with management strategies to conserve habitat and reduce beetle mortality.

Strategies include slowing down, dismounting and walking, avoiding closed trails, using alternate routes, and helping to make new trails in grasslands.

Cornelisse discovered, as social science theory predicts, that education can affect attitudes and ultimately behavior. And people were delighted when they learned that their actions can have positive impacts on an endangered species, she says.

When cyclists fly through tiger beetle territory at high speeds, the insects in turn fly off to nearby tall grasses, wasting precious energy needed to hunt and maintain body temperature. Bikers can cut their negative impacts in half simply by slowing down to speeds of 5 to 7 miles an hour in beetle habitat, Cornelisse’s research shows.

Because younger respondents tended not to know about the beetle, and those aware of the beetle and its plight were more likely to comply with conservation strategies, Cornelisse thinks educational outreach programs should target younger hikers and bikers, particularly high school mountain biking groups.

But she hopes nature lovers beyond Santa Cruz County who haven’t heard of the beautiful little predator might consider lending a hand to create more beetle-friendly trails. It’s not every day mountain bikers—sometimes referred to as “wheeled locusts”—get a chance to show they respect and value public lands just as much as the rest of us.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Blog, Education, Environment

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.