Stumbling through mixed-grass prairie in the middle of the night can be a little unnerving. The headlamp illuminates nicely the path in front of you, but the area outside the tunnel of light is rendered even blacker. It is there where the prairie rattlesnakes lie, just waiting to ambush any passing human with psychotic, venomous fury! Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic, but ever since my encounter with these malevolent creatures in the Black Hills, it’s been hard for me to suppress recollection of that terrifying buzz whenever I don’t have a clear, unobstructed view of the entire ground in a 10′ radius around me. I haven’t encountered one since, but the damage is done—I can’t wander the prairie and not think about them—especially at night. Still, I wander the prairie, especially at night, because there are good bugs in the prairie… especially at night. On this particular night, I had found a small beetle ovipositing on a dead branch while holding its elytra outstretched in a most curious manner. I had become completely absorbed in photographing this unusual display when my peripheral vision detected movement by something so large it just had to be dangerous. The flush of fear, however, turned to absolute fascination when I shone the headlamp in the direction of the movement and saw this behemoth of a grasshopper sitting in the very same bush as the beetle I was photographing:
Well over 50 mm long, it wasn’t so much its length as its girth that made this truly the most ginormous grasshopper I’d ever seen. Grasshopper diversity in the Great Plains is high, with more than 100 species in Nebraska alone (Brust et al. 2008), and while I have limited familiarity with the species, the large, robust body and tiny, little wings told me this must be one of the lubber grasshoppers in the acridid subfamily Romaleinae. As an example of how technology has changed our lives, a quick iPhone snapshot posted on Facebook yielded within minutes an identification by Matt Brust as Brachystola magna, the Plains lubber grasshopper.
The grasshopper didn’t seem alarmed by my presence as it clambered slowly on the branch, so I returned to photographing the beetle. Good thing I did, as it turned out to be the ripiphorid Toposcopus wrightii, currently recorded in the literature only from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Thus, my photos document not only an unusual northern record but also the first tangible evidence that members of the basal subfamily to which it belongs parasitize woodboring beetle larvae. Once I finished photographing that species, I returned my attentions to the lumbering beast, snapped a few photos, and then placed her in a critter carrier to bring home as a gift for my daughter (yes, she really likes when I bring home “pets” for her!).
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 2012