One thing I’ve realized during these past several years of fall collecting is that there are more than just tiger beetles to capture my interest as the field season enters its final days. The late season floral burst of goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and tall thoroughwort (Eupatorium altissimum) brings forth a multitude of bees, flies, wasps, and soldier beetles. Megacyllene robiniae, the locust borer (family Cerambycidae), is also a pleasant, if not pedestrian sight on the goldenrod as well, but if one is lucky to find goldenrod near a patch of Amorpha fruticosa (indigo bush), then its larger, more boldly marked and infinitely more exciting congener M. decora (indigo borer) might also be seen. Nothing, however, seems to match the diversity and abundance during fall of the great order Orthoptera – grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets. This is particularly true in the Ozark glades and Great Plains grasslands where I’ve spent the majority of my fall collecting time. Perhaps it is because of their size – for the most part they are relatively large insects compared to the beetles I normally study, or maybe it is their pervasive reliance on sound – singing in the grass, rasping in the trees, snapping their wings in flight. Bold and conspicuous, they demand attention.
Increasingly, I’m finding these fall hoppers harder and harder to resist, especially grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. Until now I don’t think I’ve given grasshoppers their due respect – compared to my beetles they always seemed so… primitive. No horns, no jeweled, metallic sculpturing, no over-sized jaws, no unique morphological specializations of any kind other than enlarged, saltatorial (modified for jumping) hind legs – they sport the quintessential ‘general’ insect body plan (open up any college introductory entomology textbook, and what do you see illustrated in the general morphology chapter… a grasshopper!). Even their movements seemed to me somehow mechanical and robotic. I always brushed them off as just basic insects, unrefined and uninteresting.
Of course, they are anything but uninteresting – in fact, orthopterans as a whole are among the most popular of insect groups if the number of recently published field guides is any indication. One of these is The Grasshoppers (Orthoptera: Acrididae and Romaleidae) of Nebraska (2008), authored by Matthew L. Brust and colleagues, and a copy of which I received as a gift from the senior author during my recent collecting trip to Nebraska and surrounding areas. According to this book, the grasshopper in these photographs is Hippiscus ocelote – the wrinkled grasshopper, a large, handsomely robust species distinguished by the single cut in the pronotum and its surface sculpturing, the orange hind tibia, and the triple-banded and basally blue inner surface of the hind femur. The species is generally brownish throughout, but this particular individual – seen in the White River Hills of southwestern Missouri in early September – sported a decidedly reddish head and pronotum that contrasted beautifully with its spotted wings and forced me to stop searching for tiger beetles and spend some time photographing it.
There are many reasons why I should not let myself get interested in grasshoppers – they’re big and take up a lot of space (a premium in most private collections such as mine), and by any standard my interests are already spread too thin. Still, I think it is better to have too many interests than not enough, and a Schmidt box or two full of some of the more interesting grasshoppers that I’ve encountered – properly curated and identified – wouldn’t take too much away from my beetle efforts. I already have a few specimens of Trimerotropis saxatilis (lichen grasshopper) from Missouri’s igneous glades and the related T. latifasciata (broad-banded grasshopper) from Oklahoma’s Glass Mountains, so a small assortment of other notable species in addition to them couldn’t hurt, right?
Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16-f/20), Canon MT-24EX flash (1/2 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers. Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).
Brust, M. L., W. W. Hoback and R. J. Wright. 2008. The Grasshoppers (Orthoptera: Acrididae and Romaleidae) of Nebraska. University of Nebraksa-Lincoln Extension, 138 pp.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010