Things have been busy here in Chitengo, and I am struggling to find time to update the blog amidst the preparations to our upcoming biodiversity survey of the Cheringoma Plateau. But I simply cannot resist mentioning one of the most remarkable creatures that I have had the pleasure to meet in Gorongosa. Every biologist has a list of organisms that he or she is particularly keen on seeing at least once in the wild. My list is long, but a few days ago I managed to check off it Manticora, or the Monster Tiger Beetle.
With a name like this one would expect a rather extraordinary beetle, and one would not be disappointed. Named after a mythical beast with the body of a lion, head of a man, and the tail of a scorpion, the real-life Manticora may not be as monstrous, but it is nonetheless a stunning animal. It is the world’s largest tiger beetle (Cicindelinae), with a robust, heavily sclerotized body that easily reaches 65 mm in length. Its head, especially that of the male, is equipped with a pair of mandibles that would not look out of place on a stag beetle but, unlike the mostly ritualistic function of large mandibles in stag beetles, those of Maticora are very much functional.
Despite its size Manticora behaves in a way quite similar to smaller tiger beetle species. Its movements are agile, and it can run like hell and change direction in a split of a second; they cannot fly, however. These beetles hunt anything that moves, although prefer orthopterans, but unlike other tiger beetles it appears that the sense of smell rather than vision is their main tool for locating their victims. Once prey is located the beetle clasps it with its enormous mandibles and literally chops it to pieces. I watched it find and kill a large wolf spider – at first I thought that the spider would put up a fight, but about two seconds later what was left of the spider was a nicely masticated ball of tissue and a small pile of legs. After the main body was consumed the beetle picked the legs, one by one, off the ground and ate them, too. Interestingly, the beetle, which was a male and thus his mandibles ware particularly large, used its maxillae rather than the mandibles to pick up the leftover bits of prey, a behavior I have not seen before in a beetle.
Manticoras have a bimodal pattern of activity, hunting mostly early in the morning, and then again around sunset and, contrary to a frequently repeated misconception, they are not nocturnal. This is likely because of the competition from other, mostly nocturnal ground beetles (Anthia and Termophilum), which are also common here.
The discovery of Manticora in Gorongosa has also solved a small mystery for me. About a week ago I witnessed a strange sight – a very large antlion of the genus Palpares, an insect the size of a small bird, was slowly disappearing, head first, into a perfectly round hole in the ground. That just did not compute, and I had to see what was causing this behavior. I tried to pull the antlion out and something pulled back. But the mystery animal’s strength was no match for my mighty human strength, and I freed the antlion, but not before catching a glimpse of a large, flat head about the size and shape of a penny, disappearing deep into the perfectly vertical tunnel in the ground. Tiger beetles have larvae that behave in exactly this way, and now I am convinced that I stole the prey from a Manticora larva. Next time I see a similar tunnel I will try to find the larva and photograph it.