Science on the SPOT: Salt Creek Tiger Beetles

If you ever want to meet someone enthusiastic about their job, catch up with the staff that works in the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo Butterfly and Insect Pavilion. The first time I visited to discuss videotaping with them for the Salt Creek tiger beetle recovery project, they brought out bug after bug for me to see. These insects didn't have anything to do with Salt Creek tiger beetles, but Kay Klatt and her staff wanted me to see the amazing features that different bugs have.

There's the atlas beetle that's black and shiny like a newly washed Harley Davidson motorcycle. There's leafcutter ants that slice leaves off of trees with a cut as clean as a butcher's knife would make. (Those leaves become fungi, which is actually what they eat.) I'd never seen anything like a violin mantis before. This bark-colored creature flexes at the joints as it moves to make it seem more like a robot.

"Eewww!!" That's what a lot of people say when they see bugs. Kay Klatt, Supervisor of the Butterfly and Insect Pavilion at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, says, "That's perfect. That's what gets people interested, especially young people. What is that? What does it do? How does that work? That's what might motivate someone to want to work with insects when they grow up."

The staff couldn't stop telling me about the creatures as they showed them to me. They talked about how many times they've been bitten or what species have bitten them, but they even did that with enthusiasm. I learned a lot about many types of bugs in a short amount of time. But the other thing I learned is that rare and fragile creatures like Salt Creek tiger beetles are in good hands when people like this are looking out for them. The odds are stacked against the tiger beetles, but if they make it, it will be because there are people with a passion to help them.

The passion will be a test of patience for the next several months. All the staff can do with the Salt Creek tiger beetle larvae is feed it. To do that, its food is placed at the top of a tube of soil, then the larvae will come to the top to get it. I was surprised to learn that's about all the staff can do -- watch and wait until (hopefully) the larvae turn into beetles and then can be released into saline habitats near Lincoln next spring.


The Salt Creek tiger beetle is one of the most endangered species in the United States, with only two to five hundred beetles left. They're found only in a small saline wetland area just north of Lincoln, Nebraska. We visited the wetland with Mitch Paine, a former research assistant at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln who worked with the beetles and comes back every summer to photograph the Salt Creek tiger beetles.

Produced by Diego Moreno / QUEST Nebraska. Beetle photographs by Mitch Paine.