Red-eyed Devil

In June 1994, I made my first insect collecting trip to Big Bend National Park.  Both of my previous visits to Texas had been to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, so I was anxious to see what beetle treasures awaited me in this huge chunk of western Texas.  For three days I sampled the astounding diversity of beetles found in the park’s low desert scrub, oak/juniper woodlands, and high pine forests, and on the final day I decided to visit the sotol grasslands – a transitional habitat between the desert and woodlands in the Chisos Mountains foothills.  Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) is the host plant of jewel beetles in the genus Thrincopyge – exquisitely beautiful beetles of metallic blue or green and vivid yellow.  Larvae bore through the plant’s dried flower stalks, while adults wedge themselves in the base of this agave-like plant, hidden from view by the plant’s long, strap-like, saw-toothed leaves.  I had not yet seen these beetles for myself, so I began searching the through the plants – carefully prying apart the wicked leaves in hopes of seeing adults peering up from the base, and then using my foot-long forceps to extract them.  It’s a painful process, as no amount of care completely prevents the plant’s stout, recurved spines from impaling and ripping forearm flesh while trying to grab and pull out the beetles! 

While prying apart the leaves of one particular plant, I was startled by one of the most imposing-looking insects that I have ever seen as it jumped up on top of the foliage and assumed this decidedly aggressive posture.  Although I recognized it as some type of katydid, it was unlike any I’d seen before – large and robust, vivid green and yellow with flashing red eyes, its short spotted hind wings outstretched, spiny forelegs held high, and huge jaws spread wide open.  Her long dagger-like ovipositor only added to her impressiveness.  So spectacularly terrifying was its threat display that I couldn’t resist the opportunity to collect it for eventual mounting in life-like position.  I felt a little silly being scared of a katydid but nevertheless took great care to avoid getting my fingers anywhere near those jaws as I gingerly corraled it into a jar. 

Neobarrettia spinosa is also known as the greater arid-land katydid or spiny bush katydid, but I prefer the name that has been coined by some – “red-eyed devil”!  This species belongs to a small genus of primitive katydids largely restricted to northern Mexico, with only two species extending north into the south-central and southwestern U.S.  The black front edge of the pronotum and (in life) red eyes identify this individual as N. spinosa (N. victoria, also occurring in Texas, has the pronotal front edge green and the eyes pale).  Unlike most katydids, which have adopted omnivorous or hervivorous feeding habits, species of Neobarrettia and their subfamilial relatives are pure carnivores capable of capturing and consuming prey as large as themselves.  Its bulging eyes, elongate and heavily spined forelegs, and massively robust mandibles on a large head (presumably for enlarged mandibular musculature) clearly represent adaptations for predation (Cohn 1965).

The painting above from Cohn’s revision of the genus shows the true colors of a living female and its threat display.  I collected this specimen before the days of the internet or my own interest in photography, so I had nothing but my memory to guide me as I tried to recreate the threat display during mounting.  I got it mostly right but missed on a few details – the wings should have been placed more vertically, and the insect also rears back more on its hind legs to display the brightly colored cephalic portion of its abdominal venter.  I could try to relax and remount the specimen, but given its fragility and the fact that doing so would do little to make it any more imposing, I think the pose I have it in now is just fine.

This turned out to be a more difficult ID Challenge than I anticipated, but a record number of participants played along anyway.  Dave wins this challenge with 11 pts on the basis of a correct identification and entertaining logic to accompany it.  Ben Coulter was the only other person to correctly identify the genus and species, earning 9 pts for 2nd place, while BitB’s own James Trager and TGIQ share the final podium spot with 5 pts each.  Ben continues to dominate the overall competition with 32 pts now, but the battle for 2nd place has really heated up – Janet Creamer (14 pts) and TGIQ (13 pts) have the edge, but Dave (11 pts), James Trager (11 pts), and Christopher Taylor (10 pts) are all within easy striking distance.

REFERENCE:

Cohn, T. J. 1965. The arid-land katydids of the North American genus Neobarrettia (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae): their systematics and a reconstruction of their history.  Miscellaneous Publications of the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology 126:1-179.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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29 Responses to Red-eyed Devil

  1. Wow! What a stunning creature! And a predatory Orthopteran…amazing!

    And an excellent mount as well..please stop me before I get interested in bug collecting myself!

  2. Dave says:

    Very, very satisfying, I must say, even if I did have to spend half the afternoon shoveling snow anyway. Of course, I had actually seen the katydid once and it had made a strong impression on me. So, I had an advantage (still, it could have been the other congener, so let’s credit luck). There are some even more impressive Australian katydids, but I couldn’t put a name on them.

    Re italics, knowing Ted is such a stickler, I did think I’d better, but the “You may use these HTML tags and attributes” in the post comment instructions does not include any italics. I thought I could try cutting and pasting an italicised entry from my blog, but was too lazy to try. Too late to matter, but let’s see if that works: Neobarrettia spinosa .

    I think a bigger peccadillo (ouch!) is failing to look up the author and, less importantly, the year. Let me remedy that with Neobarrettia spinosa (Caudell, 1907*). One of the reasons that taxonomic papers receive such an abysmal ranking in ISI is that people never cite them when using the species name (imagine the number of citation classics if they did). The other reason is that they rarely cite the revisions used to identify the animals – sloppy ecology if you ask me.

    *Caudell AN. 1907. The Decticinae (a group of Orthoptera) of North America. Proc. U S. Nat. Mus. 32: 285-410.

    • I would say having seen this before was a huge advantage – I can’t imagine it impressed you any less than it did me (and it’s now been 16 years).

      I’m not sure what tags show up in the HTML tags list you see, but I see both i and em, either of which can be used for italics. At any rate, italics use was rewarded in Super Crop Challenge #3, so the precedence was there. Incidentally, copying and pasting an italicized entry from your blog seems to work (if that’s easier).

      I made an early decision when I started this blog to avoid the use of authority name and year of publication. Not that I don’t support use (and am quite pedantic about proper formatting) of such in primary literature. I see this endeavor as a link between the science and an interested lay audience – that audience would be far less interested were I to insist on appending every scientific name with its authority. It is for the same reason that I make as much use of common names as possible in this forum, even though I completely eschew their use in my formal taxonomic papers. That said, in a tie-breaking situation I would likely be inclined to award a bonus point for including the authority or other taxonomic details.

      I’m totally with you on the need to cite revisions used to identify plants and animals – it’s not as much of a problem in the taxonomic literature, but I can’t tell you how many economic and ecologic papers I’ve seen where there is no mention of how the identity of organisms discussed were determined or confirmed.

      I do appreciate the reference, however, which I have repeated below with a link to the pdf:

      Caudell AN. 1907. The Decticinae (a group of Orthoptera) of North America. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 32: 285-410.

  3. Kurt says:

    Wow, awesome katydid. The threat pose mount is great as it is for me. The menacing mandibles, raised front legs, spread wing – can’t ask for more! Love the first pic too!

  4. Dale Hoyt says:

    This brings back a lot of memories for me. I was a graduate student at U of Mich. in the ’60s and regularly ate lunch with Ted Cohn in the herp division catalog room. I remember him showing me the original of that illustration. When I saw the challenge I thought to myself — that looks like one of those things Ted Cohn worked on, but I couldn’t resurrect any taxonomy other than Orthoptera. (I was originally an herpetologist.)

    Also, how on earth did you get the wings spread in that life-like pose?

    • Great story!

      The wings were the certainly the hardest part of this mounting job. After getting all the legs in position, I put a pin through each end of several strips of index card paper (stiff) and pinned them next to the bug, raising the paper to the level of the wings. I then used pins to pull the wings out onto the strips of paper and then used brace pins at the base of each wing to keep them spread out. This caused buckling of the wing against the pin, which would not look good if I left the pins in place, so I took additional strips of index card paper with pins through the ends and lowered the strips down on top of the wings over the underlying strips of paper to clamp the wings in place, then removed the brace pins at the bases of the wings. This is why the wings are quite flat – more than they would have been in life, but still better looking than buckles at the base of each wing.

    • p.s. I hope you’ll also note that there is no pin through the insect body – not a result of digital removal, but because I prepared this mount without such to begin with. Lots of brace pins at different angles under the body to hold it in place!!!

  5. James C. Trager says:

    Shoulda noticed those spines, and guessed that you wouldn’t pick something local and common. Now this critter would be worth a visit, plus, cool ants in the location!
    But, I am wondering, how safe is it in those near border locations these days?

    • I’d imagine the park proper is fairly secure. I spent time there in both 2003 and 2004 with the border patrol in post-9/11 mode – they were omni-present and quite attentive.

      • Dale Hoyt says:

        We were there last spring (2010) and camped 5 days in the Chisos Basin campground. Went down to Santa Elena canyon and walked along the Rio Grande. Saw the singing Mexican (this is a guy who serenades the tourists from the Mexican side of the river) and left an offering in his jar. He waded across the Rio Grande periodically and emptied the jar. There were also several places where hand-made trinkets and painted walking sticks were displayed on the river bank. Each display had a note indicating that they were for sale to benefit a school across the river. We watched a man on horseback cross the river into the Park and pick up the money that had been left for the walking sticks. Never saw any border patrol until we left the Park.

        • Sounds like the local economy has come back!

          Isn’t Big Bend just absolutely one of your favorite places in the world?! Ever done the Lost Mine Trail? I remember vividly hiking up to the top, standing on the highest boulder up there, and looking out across a massive canyon to Emory Peak to the west, down through the Basin and out the ‘Window’ to the northwest onto the desert 1,000 feet further down, down into Pine Canyon behind me to the east, and across the vast desert south of the Rim towards the Rio Grande and the sheer cliffs bordering the Mexican side. I also remember laying down on that boulder and looking up into the sky – I saw ravens circling far above and heard nothing but the wind. Time just sort of stood still for a while there… Man, one of those moments you never forget!

          • Dale Hoyt says:

            We loved the Window Trail down from the campground to the slot that empties the Chisos Basin into the desert far below. The wind through the Window was ferocious that day. Another exciting place was Dagger Flat where we were surrounded by thousands of giant yuccas, all in bloom. The park is more isolated than anyplace I’ve been in the US. As we left I turned on the radio and scanned for a station. It searched the entire FM band and nothing – not even a religious broadcast.

  6. Umbra says:

    I just happened to stumble upon your blog. Very nice! I really dig how you have this girl mounted, she looks fantastic.

    Anyway, I have a friend who works at the Entomology department at A&M and the people she works for kept a Red-Eyed Devil in their lab and I tell you, they’re interesting to see in the wild, but it’s even cooler to see them up close where you can watch their behavior. She was really beautiful and I only wish they kept that vivid green color after death…

    Cool blog.🙂

  7. Pingback: Circus of the Spineless #59! « The Shell and Mantle

  8. Tatiata says:

    Does anyone have kept this amaizing katytid in captivity? Have they breeding?
    We have failure with Sagoa pedo, this species run to very prolongated incubation of the eggs.

    • I think it is common to keep adults of this species in captivity for a short period of time, but breeding and rearing from egg seems to be difficult.

    • Tabitha says:

      We have kept them in captivity and seen them mating. We even have several containers of eggs. Now we are just waiting for them to hatch. It has been 6 months though and so far nothing. Not sure if they will ever hatch. Will keep you updated🙂

  9. Ray says:

    A friend of mine has seen them as far north as New Braunfels, TX and it was in her garage. Said it was very agresseve when she knocked it off of the freezer dor handle

  10. simplifylisa says:

    I captured one in Jourdanton, Tx and have it in an aquarium for the kids to watch. What should I feed it? Can it survive inside in the ac? It’s certainly a beautiful creature!

    • I’ve not tried keeping one of these in captivity, but I expect they would do well for awhile on a diet of crickets and with a source of water (wet cotton in a dish works well). I’d love to have one of these for a pet myself.

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