3 for the price of 1

A small subset of the wasps that emerged from a single mantid ootheca (Cochise Stronghold, AZ). This shot was taken after temporarily freezing the container to stun them so I could open the lid without losing the insects – they were all alive at this point.

Mantids are often thought of as apex predators of the insect world. Once grasped in a mantid’s tough forelegs, not many insects have a chance of escape. Yet mantids are quite vulnerable themselves when starting off in life. Female mantids lay eggs in masses called oothecae, which they glue on to hard surfaces. In a few cases the female will stick around and protect the eggs and hatchlings, but in most species she will simply abandon her eggs to their fate. The foamy material that surrounds and encases the eggs is a formidable barrier to predators. Typical predators like ants or birds rarely bother to try. But to small parasitoid wasps, no barrier is impenetrable.

The ootheca (egg case) of Stagmomantis californica, from which emerged the wasps above. Note the round holes created by the wasps as they chewed their way out.

While in Arizona this past spring, I collected an ootheca of the California mantid, Stagmomantis californica, with the intention to send it to a researcher working on U.S. mantids. Unfortunately, this particular ootheca had a different fate. A few days afterward, I looked into the container to discover a horde of little wasps in the container. The mantid ootheca was riddled with tiny emergence holes. Closer inspection revealed something interesting – there was more than 1 wasp species! Shiny, black-gold-green creatures with ovipositors twice their body length flitted back and forth; flattened orange wasps with white stripes and bug-eyes scampered across the walls; and a lone, very tiny, black-gold insect with striped legs was skittering helter-skelter between all the larger wasps. It was a veritable ecosystem that had emerged from this one mantid ootheca – remarkable.

Photographing these wasps was a challenge. Taking the lid off the container would have meant losing them all, so I was forced to freeze the container for a minute to stun them all temporarily – not my favorite technique, but in this case it was required. Individually they were a little better behaved, but not by much. It took me a week to find the time to upload the photos to BugGuide, but it took only hours for Ross Hill to identify them all. It turns out that the dark species with a long ovipositor was a member of the genus Podagrion (Torymidae), which are all obligate parasitoids of mantid oothecae. The flattened orange critters were Anastatus semiflavidus (Eupelmidae), a generalist which is known to parasitize a number of insects including stinkbugs, giant silk moths, and mantid oothecae. And the solitary striped-leg species? A pteromalid, many of which are hyperparasitoids (basically, a parasite of a parasite). My suspicion is that this wasp parasitized a larva of one of the Podagrion or Anastatus, but that is just a hunch. Incidentally, several of the wasps lived in captivity for almost 2 weeks, much longer than I usually expect wasps to live. Perhaps that’s more standard in the dry, unpredictable desert habitat where they came from.

Podagrion – with about 100 species worldwide that all attack mantid oothecae, these are the premier mantid-killers of our world. Note her long ovipositor. These were elegant fliers.

Anastatus semiflavidus. These wasps were very roachlike in their movements, usually opting to run rather than fly.

A single pteromalid wasp (genus and species unknown), a member of a huge family with over 3500 species worldwide that do all sorts of things. This little animal was quite fast and darted around between all the Podagrion and Anastatus with ease.

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Look closely and you will see

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Gloveria caterpillar sitting on a log in Cave Creek Canyon, AZ. But is there something more here?

During my first few weeks in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains, I often spent time hiking up and down Cave Creek, stopping to photograph interesting insects. On one particular foray, I happened to spot a good-sized caterpillar sitting on a log across the creek. I hopped across the rocks to take a look. It was big and furry, but not too colorful – just a few red and pale specks dotted its surface. I later learned that this caterpillar was that of a lasiocampid moth, most likely Gloveria sp, which feed on oaks. I considered passing it up as a photo subject, but it was just sitting there so quietly and patiently. Ah what the heck, I’ll take a quick shot of it. Pulling out my camera, I snapped a few photos. Something weird near the caterpillar’s head caught my eye as I reviewed the images. I took a closer look. Was that another insect? I looked up. The caterpillar had not moved. I positioned myself to get a better view of the unidentified thing and looked through the camera viewfinder.

A wasp! Yes, this little speck was some sort of parasitoid wasp with her ovipositor firmly entrenched in the poor caterpillar’s head. No wonder the cat wasn’t moving around! I considered brushing the wasp away but thought better of it – the wasp had likely already deposited eggs within the caterpillar’s body, so a save attempt would have been futile. Instead I tried for a better shot of the wasp. The caterpillar’s long hairs, no doubt designed to deter predation but obviously not doing a good job, obscured the wasp so much that I struggled to get a passable photo. In the end I gave up and left the caterpillar and wasp to their fate.

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The wasp, with ovipositor easily seen. It is likely a braconid, but from this shot, we’ll probably never know.

Spharagemon of Florida

Spharagemon marmorata picta in yellow sand scrub at the Tiger Creek Preserve (Polk Co., FL)

With about 9 species in the U.S., the grasshopper genus Spharagemon has always piqued my interest (see a previous post here about my discovery of S. collare in New York state). I’m not really sure why, but there is something exciting about seeing them, whether it is a common or rare species of the genus. While widespread as a group, they are most commonly seen and photographed by the average naturalist in the southeastern states, particularly Florida. This past summer I spent all of June, July, and part of August in that state and was able to observe the 3 common species there quite regularly. Here I will note some important differences between them, along with some observations from the field.

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Spharagemon marmorata picta, the Southern Marbled Grasshopper. Male (top left) from Ocala National Forest (Marion Co., FL); females (right) from Archbold Biological Station (Highlands Co., FL)

Spharagemon marmorata picta, the Southern Marbled Grasshopper, is by far the most abundant member of the genus in Florida. It is the 5th most commonly observed grasshopper in the state on iNaturalist out of a total of 55 species they have so far. It’s easy to see why. This is a beautiful pale sandy-colored species with delicate patterns of warm brown breaking up its shape, quite deserving of its common name. Its flashy yellow-orange hind wings are quite noticeable as they fly away from you on sandy trails at the Archbold Biological Station (Highlands Co.). I saw this animal in nearly every sand scrub or sandhill habitat I visited in Florida, but never tired of them. Occasionally I would run across a more dull-colored morph with a much reduced pattern that would throw me for a loop as I chased it down to see what it was. S. marmorata picta loves open sand and is quite alert and agile on its feet. This is the only Florida Spharagemon with a low pronotal crest that is cut twice.

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Spharagemon cristatum, the Ridgeback Sand Grasshopper. Male (top) from Lecanto (Citrus Co., FL); female (bottom) from Ocala National Forest.

Probably nearly as widespread, but never as abundant, is Spharagemon cristatum, the Ridgeback Sand Grasshopper. This is a big, heavy-bodied animal. Females are quite bulky and pretty easy to catch. Males, despite also being pretty hefty, can fly further and are a bit more of a challenge. The first male that I managed to catch probably took about 10 minutes to follow around and nab. To put this in perspective, there was a colony of Trimerotropis maritima (the Seaside grasshopper) in an area nearby, and snagging one of those took me a good 30 minutes of constant stalking and running back and forth in an open sandy powerline (Citrus Co.) in the summer Florida sun. Anyway, I found S. cristatum in several kinds of open places, including scrub, sandhill, roadsides, and old fields. It seems as though they like the soil to be sandy, but are not as picky as S. marmorata. The pronotal crest of S. cristatum, as you might guess by its name, is very high and crest-like, and is cut once.

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Spharagemon crepitans, the Crepitating Grasshopper. Male (top) from Ocala National Forest; female (bottom) from Dunnellon (Marion Co., FL)

The least commonly seen member of Spharagemon in Florida is a more retiring animal. Spharagemon crepitans, the Crepitating Grasshopper, is a lover of sandy woodlands rather than open places, and is less likely to jump up and make a racket when frightened, despite its species name. Their color is variable and seems to match the dominant leaf type where they occur. I only ran across this species a few times and never abundantly. At the Ocala National Forest (Marion Co.), it was fairly regular in a recently clearcut area with open sand patches, while at the Tiger Creek Preserve (Polk Co.), it hung out in the dry oak leaf litter and barely moved even when prodded (which made for nice photos!). This species has a raised pronotal crest, though not as high as in S. cristatum, which is cut once.

Spharagemon crepitans hiding in oak leaf litter at Tiger Creek Preserve.

Collecting bugs in Paradise

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Signpost upon entering the Elysian Fields. Wait…

While I was in Arizona volunteering at the Southwestern Research Station this past spring, one place that I knew I had to visit was the town of Paradise, about 6 miles west of Portal. This idyllic-sounding spot is actually a ghost town that was once more heavily populated due to the discovery of a vein of ore. It used to host general stores, saloons, and a hotel, but is now reduced to a few residential homes as well as the George Walker House, a popular bed-and-breakfast for birders (more on that in a future post). My reason for wanting to check the town out was more esoteric: I wanted a bug in my collection from Paradise. What entomologist wouldn’t?

Rove beetle Biocrypta prospiciens from Paradise, AZ.

Unfortunately when some of the other volunteers and I decided to visit, the collecting was pretty limited. I scuttled down to the creek at one point and grabbed two different beetles, but I really wanted something more exciting. Just up the road was the Paradise Cemetery, a small historic site on a grassy hillside with some oaks and alligator junipers scattered about. I saw a few harvester ant nests dotting the landscape and thought about trying to collect one of those, but a sudden flash of yellow distracted me. Was that a band-winged grasshopper? The only species of that group that I had so far encountered in the area as adults was Arphia conspersa, but I would have expected that species to be flashing orange wings (sometimes they would have yellow wings at higher elevations). I started kicking around in the grass and within minutes I spooked a rather large grasshopper with bright yellow wings, far too big to be Arphia. It flew clear across the cemetery and landed in a little barren patch. I grabbed my net and approached with caution. When I was close enough to get a good look I could hardly believe my eyes: I was looking at a gorgeous male Xanthippus corallipes, the Red-shanked Grasshopper! This big, beautiful, panther-spotted animal is widespread across most of the western states, with various distinct subspecies present at different localities and elevations. But of course, this being my first time in Arizona, even the common things were new for me. One swipe of the net and the Xanthippus was caught. This successful capture did not prepare me for subsequent encounters in the cemetery – I saw 3 others but they were fast and powerful fliers, easily escaping my flailing net. I left without collecting a female, and ran across no more populations of the species during my stay in Arizona. Ah well. When next I visit the Chiricahuas, I know to make my way back to Paradise.

Red-shanked grasshopper, Xanthippus corallipes. The common name refers to the red coloration on the inner side of the hind femur, which the grasshopper does not like to expose for the camera.

What a beetle can do for you

Male Sandalus niger from the Thurston Ave Bridge in Ithaca, NY.

Has it really been almost 10 months since I last updated this blog? I really did mean to post here over the course of 2018, but in addition to having a ton of experiences in Florida and then having classes again in the fall that ate up my time, I found that I simply didn’t have the motivation to sit down and write here. It’s difficult to prioritize this site, and even more difficult when you’re dealing with depression and imposter syndrome (if you don’t know what that is, do take a moment for a quick Google search – it really enlightened me). Needless to say, I have a ton of potential things to write about, spanning the gamut from tree-climbing crabs to the discovery of a new introduced katydid in Florida. I actually have a backlog of half-written posts concerning some of the interesting phenomena I ran across in Arizona, and I hope to put those out over the next month or so. In the meantime, below is a short anecdote that encapsulates why I continue to do what I do.

The lovely flabellate antennae of S. niger.

I had woken up in a really rotten mood. Despite not having any particularly nasty things going on my life at the moment, I just wasn’t feeling the day. But I had to go to class. It was, after all, a Thursday in September, and I was at school to learn…or something like that. After having recently returned to Cornell from a leave of absence, I was still trying to re-adapt and to convince myself that I could get through classes this time around. Some days I felt quite confident about these prospects, but this wasn’t shaping up to be one of them. Throwing on some clothes, I half-heartedly brushed my teeth and made sure I had my computer and notebooks, then headed out the door. The sun was shining, the leaves were still green, and a few jumping bush crickets were singing, but even these settings didn’t rouse me out of the pit. I trudged up the hill and started across the bridge to campus. My eyes, accustomed as they are to scanning the ground ahead of me, spotted something dark with many legs on the sidewalk ahead. I registered the shape as a longhorn beetle on its back, probably just some common species, and moved to flip it over and get it out of the way from oncoming foot traffic. When I picked the insect up, I was greeted with warm brown elytra and shockingly ornate antennae. My blasé state of mind suddenly evaporated. This was certainly no longhorn beetle – this was Sandalus niger, a well-known oddity and something I’d always wanted to see! Quickly popping my find into a vial for safekeeping, I practically skipped to class and told everyone I met who cared to listen about this lovely animal.

The Linne’s Cicada, Neotibicen linnei – a common cicada species on Cornell’s campus and a likely host for Sandalus niger.

What made this beetle so special that it turned my entire day around? S. niger is commonly known as the Cedar beetle, but its family name is more descriptive of what sets it apart: Cicada Parasite Beetles, or Rhipiceridae. Yes, these fairly plain-looking beetles with amazing antennae make their living as larvae by attaching to cicada nymphs and draining them dry. Such parasitoidism is rare among beetles; more often it is flies or wasps that employ such strategies. Although widely distributed, these insects are not commonly found. Not much is known about them: adults are reported to be short-lived and only found in autumn. Prior to this I had only ever seen one member of the entire family, and that one was dead in a Maryland parking lot. So finding one randomly on a bridge in central New York was quite unexpected, to say the least. After getting it home and photographing it, I set it up in a small container, not expecting it to live very long. I was surprised at its behavior in captivity; after 2 days, a dandelion leaf was chewed to a pulp, and it readily ate another such leaf before finally expiring after a week. This is in contrast to the observations of Elzinga (1977), who reported no feeding in adults. I am not sure how often this type of behavior would occur in nature, and with a sample size of 1, it’s not much of a data point. But still interesting to note, and just a reminder that there is so much we do not know about the world underfoot (literally).

A dead and pretty beat-up Sandalus petrophya collected from a parking lot in Hanover, MD.

Reference:

Elzinga, R. J. (1977). Observations on Sandalus niger Knoch (Coleoptera: Sandalidae) with a description of the triungulin larva. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 324-328.

Southwestern Research Station, 1 month later: Change

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View down Cave Creek Canyon, looking towards Portal. The white bark and branches of the Arizona Sycamores (restricted to riparian areas) mark the path of the creek.

Well, I had hoped to post more while out here, but as I should have predicted, being outdoors in the Chiricahuas took up most of my time. I have a good backlog of stories though, which I will be posting once I return home in about a week. In the meantime, an update on the past few weeks is below.

 

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A spectacular Gibbifer californicus, the aptly named Pleasing Fungus Beetle. A member of a mostly tropical group that just reaches the southwestern U.S. It sure pleased me! (Herb Martyr, Chiricahuas, AZ)

I arrived at the Station one month ago, and while much of it looks the same, a lot of changes have occurred. Spring has certainly sprung, with many trees and other plants flowering; this in turn has brought out the native bees, wasps, flies, and other pollinators, which have proven to be excellent photography subjects! The temperatures have also warmed up, with daytime highs generally in the 70s and 80s (F). This has brought about the emergence of even more interesting insects, as well as the appearance of more colorful birds and lizards. I recently had the chance to take some much better shots of those animals and will be writing a post on Chiricahua birds (wasn’t this supposed to be a bug blog?) at some point.

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Pallid-winged grasshopper, Trimerotropis pallidipennis, at San Bernardino NWR. This is a common, widespread western desert grasshopper, found from British Columbia south to Chile, but this encounter was a first for me!

What about the Orthoptera? The last time I posted here, there weren’t many species out, and most were still nymphs. That is most certainly not the case any more. Most of those species that were nymphs are now adults, and I’ve run across a lot of other species starting to emerge too. It is still quite silent at night, but during the day the open oak-juniper woodlands surrounding the station are abuzz with the crepitating flights of Arphia conspersa, the speckle-winged rangeland grasshopper. Down in Portal, riparian areas and small ponds are alive with the chirping of Gryllus field crickets and the trilling of Mormon ground crickets (Neonemobius mormonius). The real chorus will happen during the monsoon season starting in July, but I will be long gone before then unfortunately.

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Rustler Park in the high Chiricahuas. Note the ponderosa pines and douglas fir, as well as evidence of a fire in the background.

With the arrival of other interns/volunteers, some of whom possess cars, I have been able to go somewhat further afield on a few occasions. Barfoot Park and Rustler Park, mountain meadows in the high Chiricahuas with plants and animals more characteristic of the Canadian/Hudsonian fauna, were very cool and quite different from habitats around the station. I’ve also made it into Portal a couple of times, which has a desert scrub environment that is tricky to explore due to the prevalence of spiny mesquites and cacti, but well worth the effort. Going further, I had the chance to visit San Bernardino NWR, a preserved area right on the Mexican border that holds a rich marshland contained within desert – a tantalizing combination of habitats that was rich in grasshoppers. In addition to buggin’ forays, I was also lucky enough to partake in a few odd adventures – caving in Chiricahua crystal cave and invasive bullfrog eradication in a manmade pond (which yielded a lot of cool insects as well!).

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Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisorum)

Much change has occurred here in a month, and although I’m sad to be leaving just as spring is setting in, I’ll definitely be back – when, who knows, but the Chiricahuas beckon.

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Collared Peccaries (Pecari tajacu), colloquially known as Javelina (Portal, AZ)

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An ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) at San Bernardino NWR (Douglas, AZ).

Japygids galore

 

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My first ever individual of Evalljapyx hubbardi, mere seconds before a plane’s thundering boom gave the creature its freedom (Southwestern Research Station, AZ).

I lost my first japygid dipluran because of a plane. I had just snapped a few photos of the tiny, earwig-like creature scuttling around under a rock, but as I reached out to pick it up, an ear-splitting sound wave hit my ears. I jumped up in alarm not knowing what was happening, but I immediately realized what the source of the sound was as I saw the plane zooming off, the sonic boom shrinking into the distance. Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua mountains of AZ is a popular place for such aircraft to fly through, and when you hear one of those for the first time, by golly it’s loud! Of course by the time I had recovered my senses, the japygid was gone. I laughed at what had happened, but I also feared I wouldn’t see another of these animals, supposedly rare. As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about; japygids are common in the Chiricahuas, and I see them almost every day out here. But you’re probably wondering: just what are japygids?

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Another individual of Evalljapyx hubbardi from the Southwestern Research Station, AZ.

At first glance you might confuse a japygid with an earwig. They are both elongated creatures with six legs and pincer-like appendages on the ends of their abdomens. But it’s just convergent evolution at work – they belong to radically different groups, and japygids aren’t even considered insects! They are diplurans, which have six legs like insects, but their mouthparts are retracted inside a pouch in the head. Japygids are predators, using their forceps to capture and kill even tinier organisms. They are found worldwide but are more common in southern regions, and tend not to be abundant. At the Southwestern Research Station, however, this logic is turned upside down, for japygids can be found under nearly every rock, and are easy to catch (as long as there isn’t a plane roaring overhead!). I had never seen japygids before coming here, so it was a real pleasure to see them so plentifully. Only one genus and species of Japygidae has been described from Arizona, so I’m pretty sure that this is the species I have: Evalljapyx hubbardi.

Japygidae is one of the two most common families of diplurans – the other is the family Campodeidae. Campodeid diplurans are even more slender than japygids, and have two long cerci instead of forceps at the tips of their abdomens. I have discovered them on occasion in Maine and New York, and they are present at the Station as well, but not nearly in as much abundance as the japygids. The campodeids are also found worldwide, where they mostly feed on leaf litter and other detritus.

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An unidentified campodeid dipluran. This individual was running around under the same rock as the japygid dipluran in the previous photo.