Epaulet and Meadow Ladybird Comparison

This species pair has a reputation for being easily confused but I consider the vast majority to be identifiable by examining the upper parts. The light and dark markings on the wing cases of each species show up best on photographs of live specimens taken in outside natural light. The subtle tonal variation does not show up well on microscope photographs taken in doors or on pinned specimens in harsh studio lighting.

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Habitat : Epaulet Ladybird

Pine trees, ivy and evergreen garden shrubs.

Background Colour : Epaulet Ladybird

Mostly oak brown to deep chestnut.

Occasionally a paler orangey brown.

Pale Markings : Epaulet Ladybird

A pale curved stripe across the upper wing cases. 

These usually extend down the centre of the wing cases as a pair of tramlines.

Wing case tips usually grey.

Dark Markings : Epaulet Ladybird

The dark markings form a shield shape with two vertical lines reaching near the top corner, an anchor shape in the lower centre and a pair of tooth shaped marks.

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Pronotum : Epaulet Ladybird

Strongly curved on the corner sometimes forming a right angle and the rear edges are often straight and nearly parallel sided.

Habitat : Meadow Ladybird

Grassland, also nettles, thistles, edges of ponds, ditches and sometimes in gardens.

Background Colour : Meadow Ladybird

Mostly pale yellowy buff to oak brown.

Some deep chestnut, even blackish.

Pronotum sometimes paler than wing cases.

Pale Markings : Meadow Ladybird

Many are uniform and lack paler markings.

Often shows a neat pale outer edge to the wing cases.

Dark Markings : Meadow Ladybird

Some are uniform and lack dark markings.

Often shows a dark U-shape marking on the rear wing cases with one vertical line extending half way up each wing case.

Variable dark patch at the top of the wing cases behind pronotum.

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Pronotum : Meadow Ladybird

The sides are gently curved, often still widening as they reach the wing cases, although some have an angled corner similar to Epaulet Ladybird.

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History of Recording

Meadow Ladybird is a common native species of grassland habitats that has been well recorded for a long time.

Epaulet Ladybird was recorded in the UK for the first time in Surrey in 1996.

Early records relied on identification criteria based on the scientific literature, often including the dissection and microscopic examination of the male genitalia.

Epaulet Ladybird quickly gained a reputation for being very difficult to separate from Meadow Ladybird.

This reputation has continued to the current day and is harming the accurate recording of Epaulet Ladybird, which is now one of the commonest species of ladybird in large areas of southern England.

Specialist coleopterists tend to record this species once or twice in a recording area and having collected a few specimens move on to the many other interesting beetles available.

Wildlife enthusiasts sometimes find and tentatively identify Epaulet Ladybirds but then find the levels of proof required off putting or are steered towards Meadow Ladybird as a more likely identification.

Between 1996 and 2018 a total of 216 records of Epaulet Ladybirds were submitted to the NBN Atlas, an average of just under 10 a year. 

In 2020 I submitted a total of 318 records of Epaulet Ladybirds, mostly on lockdown walks close to home. This species is severely under recorded.

In 2021 I submitted a further 444 records.

Prosternal Keel

The prosternal keel has become the main feature used to identify this species pair, largely by default as it is a binary feature which works well in a dichotomous key.

The prosternal keel is located on the underside between the front pair of legs.

This feature is why The Field Guide, Roy and Brown 2018 used the names Pointed-keeled Rhyzobius and Round-keeled Rhyzobius for these two species.

However, I find this feature unreliable.

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Meadow Ladybird has a prosternal keel described as a straight sided narrow triangle with a pointed top.

The shape is similar to The Shard building in London.

Epaulet Ladybird has a parallel sided mid section, a rounded top and the lower section widening.

This resembles a narrow bell shape.

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The reality is more complicated than this.

Whilst some Epaulet and Meadow Ladybirds show the expected classic shapes, many can be inconclusive and intermediate. There is a lot of leeway with these, with observers using subjective interpretation.

More significantly Epaulet Ladybird can often show a pointed tip to the classic bell shape.

If these are routinely mis-identified as Meadow Ladybird then three issues arise:

a) Epaulet Ladybird maintains its reputation for being rare.

b) The identification criteria of the two species become confused, adding to the belief that 

     they are unidentifiable using visible features on the upper parts.

c) The habitats frequented by each species also become confused.

I have been using a combination of subtle but consistent wing case markings, alongside  pronotum shape and habitat, to distinguish these two species, which I refer to as Epaulet and Meadow Ladybirds.

Other recorders prefer to rely on the keel-shape, with out referring to wing case pattern or habitat. The vernacular names Round-keeled and Pointed-keeled Ladybirds cover this identification process.

The scientific names Rhyzobius chrysomeloides and Rhyzobius litura refer to slightly different groups depending on which system is used.

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Using the keel shape the two species are separated along the vertical line A-B.

Using my system the two species are separated along the horizontal line C-D.

Group 1 consists of individuals that show the features of Epaulet Ladybirds and have round-keels and these are classic chrysomeloides, accepted by all.

Group 4 consists of Meadow Ladybirds with a pointed-keel and these are accepted by all as litura.

Group 3 consists of Meadow Ladybirds that show a rounded-keel. I would call these litura, whilst the keel-shape would identify them as chrysomeloides

It is possible that this group is purely hypothetical. I am not aware of this arising as an identification problem, litura possibly has a more consistent keel shape, a lower level of required proof and higher expectation of occurrence.

Group 2 is the problematic one.

Individuals which show all the features of an Epaulet Ladybird, but which have a pointed-keel.

I call these chrysomeloides, whilst the majority call them litura.

This difference is really important and has huge consequences for the recording of these two species.

As discussed below, I am convinced the differences between these two species are consistent as there is no overlap between the two species when searching the two very different main habitats that they inhabit.

Using the keel shape a few specimens resembling Epaulet Ladybird can show a pointed keel and these would be identified as litura.

My questions concerning these is has this form of litura resembling Epaulet Ladybird occurred in the UK prior to colonisation by chrysomeloides and is anyone sweeping them from grassland or do they only occur in woodland habitats alongside other chrysomeloides.

Both of these contrasting identification systems, mine and the keel-shape are self-reinforcing.

An independent review of the identification features for this pair of common species is now needed.

Habitat

Scientific keys tend to avoid mention of habitats, but in the case of Meadow and Epaulet Ladybirds understanding their range of habitats is important.

Both species can overlap in gardens and in scrubby hedgerows, particularly in late season seeding thistles, burdocks, black horehound and similar woody herbage.

However, each species has a specialist habitat and surveying these is the best way to become familiar with the variation of each species and learn how to distinguish them from each other.

It also provides an opportunity to build up a reference collection of photographs of live individuals taken in the field.

Open grassland, well away from shrubs and trees, is the best area to search for Meadow Ladybird, with out the presence of Epaulet Ladybird to confuse matters.

I have swept a total of 146 Meadow Ladybirds from grassland and they have all looked like Meadow Ladybirds, with no features suggesting Epaulet Ladybirds.

This figure is quite low as my recording area is on clay soils; chalk and sandy soils are likely to produce higher numbers. Also, I spend a lot more time beating than sweeping.

Most grassland areas with abundant 16-spot Ladybirds will also produce Meadow Ladybirds.

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Ideal Meadow Ladybird habitat: Open grassy meadow with nettle patch

Epaulet Ladybirds can be abundant on ivy covered tree trunks in deeply shaded woodland and can be found in this habit throughout the winter. 

I have found c.500 Epaulet Ladybirds and no Meadow Ladybirds in this habitat.

The vast majority, have been easy to identify.

A few pale individuals are a bit tricky to categorically separate from Meadow Ladybird but as of 2020 I think I have found reliable criteria to identify even the palest specimens, although I am still refining the process.

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Ideal Epaulet Ladybird habitat:  Ivy covered tree trunks in shaded woodland.

Epaulet Ladybirds are also common in pine trees and I have never recorded Meadow Ladybird in this habitat.

However, other observers have reported Meadow Ladybird in pine trees.

At May Day Farm, Suffolk, I have beaten Epaulet Ladybird from small pine trees in a grassy clearing, whilst sweep netting Meadow Ladybird from the adjacent grassland. So the two species occur alongside each other and could co-inhabit. 

Difficult Overlap Specimens

Epaulet Ladybirds with pale shoulder curves with pale tramlines and the classic dark shield markings are very distinctive and easy to identify.

A small number of Epaulet Ladybirds have very reduced dark markings and are sometimes difficult to separate from Meadow Ladybird.

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Many Meadow Ladybirds are also quite easy to identify, although they have fewer features to look for and in plain individuals identification is based on an absence of features.

The trickiest Meadow Ladybirds to identify have a chestnut ground colour similar to many Epaulet Ladybirds with a rather confused pattern of lighter and darker marking, again lacking any positive features to base an identification on, just an absence of any Epaulet features.

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It can be frustrating when searching a new area and finding a suspected Epaulet Ladybird but not a classic one that can be submitted. 

On the plus side, this species can be abundant where it occurs and shows good site fidelity, so continued searching is likely to produce a better specimen.

More study of the field characteristics will help refine the identification of the trickier individuals.

Conclusions

The majority of Epaulet and Meadow Ladybirds (about 95%) are easily identified from a photograph of the upperparts, or close examination with a hand lens.

Some (about 5%) can be a bit tricky and can cause confusion without experience of the full range of variation for each species.

A very small number (less than 1%) might not be identifiable on current known criteria.

As more people start to look at the field characteristics of live specimens in the field, the better we will understand the variation of the trickier specimens.

Meadow and Epaulet Ladybirds are similar to 10-spot Ladybirds, as they have a wide range of forms that can be confused with other species by inexperienced observers but can mostly be identified by a good quality photograph.

I still occasionally get caught out when making a quick identification between 10-spot, Cream-streaked and unusually small Harlequin Ladybirds, as they all have overlap colour forms. A careful check of a photograph usually sorts out the situation.

Despite this possible confusion, 10-spot Ladybird is considered acceptable by photograph because it is a common species.

Epaulet Ladybird is not universally considered acceptable by photograph because it is a rare species.

However, my records contradict this assumption.

I have submitted all my 10-spot Ladybirds records since I started recording about a decade ago.

My submitted records totals to the end of 2021 include:

Epaulet Ladybird; 1000 records

Forestier's Ladybird; 115 records

10-spot Ladybird; 104 records

Meadow Ladybird; 78 records

This demonstrates just how common Epaulet Ladybird can be, at least in some parts of the SE of England.

At present, Epaulet Ladybird is under represented in the recording process. This is due to concern that a few stray records may enter the system.

The unintended consequence of this is that all published lists of the commonest ladybird species in the UK are compromised by the absence of one of the commonest species from the data set.

Searching for and submitting records of Meadow and Epaulet Ladybirds is a relatively easy and rewarding way to become involved in the world of inconspicuous ladybirds and will help in the recording process of this fascinating and controversial species pair.