In mid- to late summer, the swamps of southeast Missouri and adjacent areas along the Mississippi River become awash in color as stands of hairy rose mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus) put forth their conspicuous, white and pink blooms. I’ve been waiting for the mallows to bloom this year, as there is one particular beetle associated with plants in this genus that I have been keen to photograph since I first picked up a real camera a few years ago, to this point without success. My first attempt this year came in early August as I noted the tell-tale blooms while passing through extreme western Kentucky. I was foiled again (but would succeed the next day—more on this in a future post), but as I tiptoed over the soggy ground searching through the lush foliage, I saw a small, brightly colored cricket with curiously enlarged mouthparts. Even more interesting was the constant, almost frenetic manner in which the insect was moving these mouthparts. My first attempts to detach the leaf on which it was moving spooked it, and it jumped to another leaf, but I persisted and finally succeeded in detaching the leaf with the critter still upon it and maneuvering it up towards the sky for a few photographs.
Phyllopalpus pulchellus (red-headed bush cricket or “handsome trig”) | Hickman Co., Kentucky
It didn’t take long to identify the cricket as Phyllopalpus pulchellus, or “red-headed bush cricket” (family Gryllidae). This species, also known as the “handsome trig” on account of its stunning appearance and membership in the subfamily Trigonidiinae, is distinctive among all North American orthopterans by its red head and thorax, pale legs, dark wings, and—as already noted—highly modified maxillary palpi with the greatly expanded and paddle-like terminal segment. According to Capinera et al. (2004), adults appear during mid- to late summer near streams and marshes on vegetation about one meter above the ground—precisely as this individual was found. Surely it represents one of our most photographed cricket species (208 BugGuide photos and counting).
The greatly expanded palps are said to mimic beetle mandibles or spider pedipalps.
The obvious question to anyone who sees this species is, “Why the curiously enlarged palps?” Both males and females exhibit this character (even as juveniles), so it seems clear that there is no special sexual or hypersensory function. One idea mentioned on BugGuide (perhaps originating from this EOL post by Patrick Coin) suggests that the crickets are Batesian mimics of chemically-defended ground beetles (family Carabidae) such as bombardier beetles (genus Brachinus). This thought is based on their similar coloration, the convex and shiny (and, thus, beetle-like) forewings of the females, and some resemblance of the enlarged palpi to the mandibles of the beetles. I am not completely satisfied with this idea, since bombardier beetles are generally found on the ground rather than foliage. Moreover, males lack the convex, shiny forewings exhibited by females, and resemblance of the palps to beetle mandibles doesn’t explain their curiously constant movement (ground beetles don’t constantly move their mandibles). Another idea suggested by orthopterist (and insect macrophotographer extraordinaire!) Piotr Naskrecki is a mimetic association with another group of arthropods, noting that the busy movements of the palps is very similar to the way jumping spiders (family Salticidae) move their pedipalps. This suggestion also is not completely satisfying, as it leaves one wondering why the crickets are so boldly and conspicuously colored. While some jumping spiders are brightly colored, I’m not aware of any in eastern North America with similar coloration (indeed, many jumping spiders can be considered ‘drab’). Perhaps the crickets have adopted mimetic strategies using multiple models in their efforts to avoid predation?
The brown wings and sickle-shaped ovipositor identify this individual as a female.
The individual in these photos can be identified as a female due to the presence of the sickle-shaped ovipositor and, as mentioned above, the convex, shiny forewings. Males possess more typically cricket-like forewings, perhaps constrained to such shape by the sound producing function they must serve. The males do, however, exhibit an interesting dimorphism of the forewings, with one wing being clear and the other one black. Fellow St. Louisan and singing insect enthusiast James C. Trager notes this dimorphism has been mentioned in the literature but not explained and suggests it may have something to do with the adaptive physics of sound production.
Congratulations to Ben Coulter, who wins Super Crop Challenge #16, which featured a cropped close-up of the enlarged maxillary palpi of this insect. His 12 pts increase his lead in the overall standings for BitB Challenge Session #7 to an almost insurmountable 59 pts. Morgan Jackson and Troy Bartlett round out the podium with 10 and 9 pts, respectively—Troy’s points being enough to move him into 2nd place in the overalls with 23 pts. Third place in the overalls is still up for grabs, since none of the people occupying the 3rd through 6th places has played for awhile—realistically any number of people behind them could jump onto the podium (or even grab 2nd place!) in the next (and probably last) Session #7 challenge.
Capinera, J. L., R. D. Scott & T. J. Walker. 2004. Field Guide To Grasshoppers, Katydids, And Crickets Of The United States. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 249 pp. [Amazon].
© Ted C. MacRae 2014