Episode 221 – Tiger Beetle: Blinded by the Flight

“…and today we’re talking about a tiny tiger that’s got its mind set on you. But more on that later.”

When it comes to the speediest speedsters, you don’t often look for champions in the insect world. They may be small, but they can be quick once you factor in their size. The Australian tiger beetle is a prime example, darting around faster than the eye can follow. In fact, it moves too fast for its own good. Find out how this tiny track star keeps things under control without the speed force here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Description of the Tiger Beetle

  • Tiger beetles are small, brilliantly colored beetles, some of which have iridescent coloration. 
  • They have oblong bodies that sit high on slender legs.
  • Tiger beetles also have antennae that sit under their large compound eyes.
  • Unlike other beetles, they have no wings and can’t fly. 

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro! 

  1. Paul MacCartney
  2. John Lennon
  3. Ringo Starr
  4. George Harrison


  • 10 to 20 mm (0.7 inches)
  • How many beetles go into the distance asteroid 2022 GN1 will pass by earth?
  • Hint: The asteroid will make its closest pass tonight at around 11:02 p.m. EDT. Unfortunately, if you are hearing about it from this podcast, you already missed it. And unfortunately for us, it’s going to pass on the daytime side of the earth, but we can watch it online!
  • 6,356,908,800 beetles. The asteroid will pass by earth at around 79,000 miles (127,000 kilometers) away. That’s a third of the distance to the moon. 

Subfamily Size

  • 2,600 species and subspecies
  • How many groups of human beings that are in space right now go into the total number of tiger beetle species there are?
  • Hint: There are Americans, one German, Russians, and Chinese. All originally launched on the SpaceX Crew Dragon Expedition 66 long duration mission in November 2021. 
  • 260 groups. There are 10 people in space.

Fast Facts about the Tiger Beetle

  • The subfamily is one of the most diverse in Beetledom. Our particular beetle is from Australia, but they can be found all over, including the New World. The largest of the family lives in South America. There are 100 species in the U.S. 
  • They are aggressive and opportunistic predators. When they catch prey, their primary method of sealing the deal is to crush them with their mandibles. Their mandibles are large for their body size, which suggests that they put a lot of points into offense.
  • They prey on basically any arthropod that’s smaller than they are, including spiders and insects.
  • They have keen compound eyes that can detect prey all around them, similar to a fly’s eyes. 
  • When they catch prey, they will vomit on them to start digesting them immediately. 
  • Beetle larvae are also aggressive predators, though they don’t actively hunt like their parents. Instead, they are ambush predators that dig tunnels in the ground and grab prey that passes overhead. 

Major Fact: Blinded by the Flight

  • When you think of the fastest animal in the world, you usually think of the cheetah or, for the cultured, you think of the swordfish or peregrine falcon.
  • And while they may be able to cross the most distance in the least amount of time, there is a way of measuring speed that allows some of the smaller folks to compete: body lengths per second.
  • See, the Australian tiger beetle reaches a max speed of about 5 miles per hour, a light jog for the average human, so not very impressive
  • UNTIL you remember that the tiger beetle is not a human but, in fact, a tiny beetle less than an inch long.
  • Even so, any bug that can outrun your speedwalking is terrifying enough
  • So the tiger beetle can move at about 120 body lengths per second.
  • Converted to human proportions, that ends up being around 480 miles per hour, making it about 80 times faster than a human.
  • If it was the size of a blue whale, it would be moving almost 6,000 mph
  • So a tiger beetle can spot its prey, then zip over to it with dracula teleporting speed.
  • However, there is a caveat to being able to move that fast
  • Insects that rely on sight usually have a dilemma to overcome: they’re small
  • While this doesn’t seem like a problem for seeing things at first, they’re actually small enough for the wavelengths of visible light to not fit inside their eyes
  • That’s why many insects have proportionally massive eyes with compound vision, allowing them to take in light from a wide angle and allowing larger wavelengths to get in there and paint a picture of what’s going on.
  • That all goes out the window when you’re blitzing as fast as the tiger beetle
  • At those speeds, at that size, the world becomes a Jackson Polluck painting or my son’s food tray after he’s finished painting it with his avocados.
  • So when they’re in beserk mode, they’re effectively in a perpetual motion blur. Australian tiger beetles run so fast they go temporarily blind.
  • They compensate for this by stopping frequently while chasing prey. They’ll kinda dart from place to place until they hit their target. Each time they stop, they get their bearings, reorient, and charge again.
  • They need a good collision detection system, and that comes from their antennae
  • Before charging, they will hold their antennae out in a “V” shape. When the antennae hit an obstacle that the beetle could skitter over, they’ll bend upward and boost the entire beetle over the obstacle. 
    • Daniel Zurek, a researcher from Cornell University, says its like a blind person holding two canes outward while wearing rocket skates.
  • Researchers know this because they removed the antennae of some and they smacked right into obstacles while the ones with antennae cleared them.
  • As an aside, Zurek says he can catch tiger beetles easily by sneaking up behind them.

Ending: So zero in on your prey, keep your compound eyes open, and run like the wind bullseye like the Australian tiger beetle here in LDT.