Australian Tiger Beetle Profile
Tigers are renowned for their swiftness and ferocious agility. Beetles, not so much. Except in this one instance.
So it stands to reason that a family of beetles known for their speed and murderous nature would be honoured with the Tiger name, and among them, a striped sprinter stands tall as the fastest there is: the Australian tiger beetle.
Australian Tiger Beetle Facts Overview
|Sandy soils, dry salt lakes/streams
|Likely 2-3 years
|20mm (3/4 inch)
|Brown or white with black stripes
|9km/h (5.6 mph)
|No. of Species:
Australian tiger beetles inhabit the hot, arid, desert landscapes and dry salt lakes of Australia.
These small beetles are flightless, and as their namesake suggests, striped hunters, and phenomenal ones, at that.
They are also the fastest known insects and use this speed to chase down prey on the daily.
They have huge eyes, long legs, and terrifying jaws, and when used in combination, they are very successful killers, despite running so fast they can’t see.
Interesting Australian Tiger Beetle Facts
1. They can’t fly
Beetles represent a quarter of all animal species we know of, across every animal phylum. They’re the most diverse order of animals on the planet, so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll find one that doesn’t do what most insects do.
Australian tiger beetles don’t fly. They’ve chosen the (10% or so) minority ranks of beetles who don’t, and it hasn’t really come as a handicap at all. In fact, flightlessness is common in ground beetles and is thought to have contributed to a lot of the diversity we see in this order.
These beetles don’t need to fly. In fact, carrying a heavy set of wings would just slow them down. Instead, they find their food on foot. 1
2. They’re hunters
These beetles are specialised hunters of other animals. Fortunately for us, they’re quite small and don’t have the appetite for a whole person. They tend to stick to other arthropods, but after this simple caveat, they’re not particularly fussy eaters.
The Australian tiger beetle will take down anything it can, and it does so by actively hunting its prey. In order to defeat its target in a hunt, it comes with a series of incredible hunting adaptations as standard.
3. They’re hot
This beetle lives in Australia, and if there’s anything everyone knows about Australia, it’s that it’s a hot, dry climate. This is good news for a runner, as it allows the animal to remain warmed up and ready to sprint.
Sprinting fast requires a high temperature, and the Tiger leans on its high metabolic to further maintain warmed-up muscles.
The specifics of this species’ thermoregulation behaviours aren’t yet obvious, but in similar species, the optimal hunting body temperature is 35°C, with a threshold of around 19°C. Any lower than this, and they like to bask in the sun to warm up.
Any higher, and they need to figure out how to cool down again. They don’t sweat, so this mostly involves finding some shade and taking a break.
This strategy is a tough one. High metabolic rates mean higher running speeds, but they also mean higher prey capture requirements, and this is always the trade-off in a runner. 2
And runners, they are!
4. They’re the fastest known running insect
The Australian tiger beetle runs faster than any known insect. This is the current record-holder, despite what you tell your friends about that cockroach that chased you out of the bathroom. This beetle has been clocked at 9km/h, or 5.6mph.
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, I can run faster than that”, and you’d hopefully be right, but you might be forgetting that the Australian tiger beetle’s extra-long legs are still around a 500th of the length of yours.
Using this mostly arbitrary scaling device, you could assume that its speed is equivalent to you running 4506 km/h or 2800 mph.
You could also look at it in terms of body length. This beetle runs roughly 2.5m/s, which at a whopping 20mm would make it 125 body lengths every second. Now, we don’t want to make any assumptions about the length of your body, but it’s safe to say you can’t run that fast, either. 3
5. They run blind
As you can imagine, running at five times the speed of sound would give you little time to stop and admire the scenery. And if you’re running after something, it might be hard to visually orient yourself around it or to spot the hazards as you go.
Tiger beetles have this problem, too. Since they move so quickly, they have to occasionally stop to process what’s going on, which gives them a strange stop-start style of chasing.
They have enormous eyes – all the better to see you with – and they use these to take in as much information as possible during these brief updates before continuing the chase. 4
6. And this could teach us a thing or two
As humans, we don’t typically move too fast to take in anything important. But our robots might.
Some believe that understanding the image-processing trade-off found in insects like this can help identify the solutions that evolution has come up with to solve this issue – and this hold promise for how to implement it into things like extra-planetary rovers and other machine-based exploratory devices.
7. Even their babies are scary
Tiger beetles aren’t born sprinters, they start off like most beetles: fat little grubs that need to bulk up to survive a metamorphosis into adulthood.
But this doesn’t make them at all cuter; they’re not the dopey, wood-boring larvae like the stag beetles or scarabs, they’re just as bloodthirsty as their progenitors, and must kill to survive.
If you’ve ever seen an ant lion larva, you’ll know how where the idea for the Pit of Sarlacc in Star Wars came from. Tiger beetle larvae have a similar approach to these two predators. These larvae live in tunnels and ambush passing critters.
Once something meaty walks by, it’s grabbed by the waiting larva and dragged underground to be consumed. They do this until they’ve moulted twice, and at the end of the third instar, they pupate in their death tunnel, emerging as a beautiful hunter. 5
Australian Tiger Beetle Fact-File Summary
Fact Sources & References
- Hiroshi Ikeda (2012), “Loss of flight promotes beetle diversification”, nature communications.
- Hans Dreisig (1979), “Daily activity, thermoregulation and water loss in the tiger beetle Cicindela hybrida”, Publication.
- THOMAS M. MERRITT (1999), “Fastest Runner”, Department of Entomology & Nematology
University of Florida.
- Blaine Friedlander (1998), “When tiger beetles chase prey at high speeds they go blind temporarily, Cornell entomologists learn”, Cornell Chronicle.
- Shane Donaher (2019), “Tiger Beetle (Cicindela Hudsoni)”, Publication.