Northern dune tiger beetle: The fastest beetle in the world?

By Natalie Hunt

Did you know that here on the Sefton Coast, we have possibly one of the world’s fastest beetles?

Around 2cm long, with colourful reddish wing cases with three pale bands and iridescent green underneath, the northern dune tiger beetle Cicindela hybrida is one of five tiger beetle species found in the UK.  Some species of tiger beetle can reach speeds of 2.5 m/s!

Northern Dune Tiger Beetle 1 - Copy

Northern dune tiger beetles are highly specialised insects restricted to coastal habitats and are only found in two UK locations, here in the sand dunes of the Sefton Coast, North Merseyside and at Drigg in Cumbria. As they are a GB RedList ‘vulnerable’ species and a Section 41 priority species, actions are needed to help their recovery.

Adult beetles can be seen anytime between April and October if the weather is right but there are usually two distinctive population peaks so the best time to see them is May and August. Head out to the sandy frontal dunes here on a sunny day and they are generally quite easy to find. You can spot their burrows by the distinctive crescent shape and often you can find them digging out new homes in the sand.

mating northern tiger dune beetles natalie hunt - Copy
Northern Dune Tiger Beetles - Copy

Northern dune tiger beetles need a certain body temperature to operate, around 35°C.  Too cold and they stay in their burrows, too hot, and they head to the shade of marram grass or take flight to cool down, a bit like me in hot weather, except for the flying part! Having spent many a happy hour surveying these beetles, they’re quite comical when they take flight. Not being the best of fliers, they don’t seem to get very far and tend to crash-land spectacularly a few metres away.

They will have a go at catching pretty much any insect with their enormous mandibles (jaws), chasing their prey so fast, they have to stop regularly to relocate themselves. You will see them moving across the sand in short, very quick bursts.  Ironically, the beetles also have to watch out as they can become prey themselves of another of our rare Sefton Coast species, the elusive sand lizard, who enjoys the occasional tasty tiger beetle snack.

Ainsdale Duens Coast 1 Natalie Hunt

Like many insects, northern dune tiger beetles spend most of their lives in a larval form, living in vertical burrows in the sand where they wait for passing prey, grabbing it with their impressive jaws and dragging it back into their burrow.  These burrows can be around 20-30cm deep.  I’m constantly amazed that something so small can dig to such an impressive depth!

These fascinating beetles need open sandy dunes for burrowing, egg-laying and hunting.  They also need a mixed topography with areas that cool/heat at different rates, including south-facing slopes, flatter areas for egg-laying and some sparse vegetation for shade and to escape to.  Since the 1940s, some 80% of bare sand has been lost on our coast, reducing the amount of suitable habitat available and sadly contributing to their population decline.

But it’s not all bad news!  Our conservation works as part of Dynamic Dunescapes will help improve our open dune habitat and increase the areas of bare sand by removing and controlling invasive species such as Japanese Rose that are threatening to take over our dune system here on the Sefton Coast.  This will not only benefit our charismatic northern dune tiger beetle but help reverse the decline of many of our other dune specialist species.  I can’t wait to get started!

All images: Natalie Hunt

About the Author

Natalie Hunt
Natural England

A former contaminated land specialist, Natalie now works in wildlife conservation as a Coastal Lead Adviser for Natural England and is part of the Sefton Coast Dynamic Dunescapes team. Natalie has a keen interest in all things coastal, botanical and entomological, including a mild obsession with solitary bees!