Gorongosa: Chasing Ornithacris


Ornithacris magnifica (Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique)

One day while in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, I was wandering around the grounds of the Community Education Center (CEC), sweeping the grass in search of interesting orthopterans (or any insects, really), when an enormous pink shape burst up in front of me and shot off like a little bird. I smiled, for I knew that this had to be a bird grasshopper (subfamily cyrtacanthacridinae), a group of extremely large, powerful flyers with many species in Gorongosa. These insects have a reputation for being extremely difficult to capture because of their outstanding flying abilities. Nonetheless, this was the first bird grasshopper I had run across so far in Gorongosa, and I set off in pursuit. His light brown coloration provided almost perfect camouflage against the dry grasses and leaf litter, making him difficult to see when on the ground. Every time I got a little too near, he leapt up into flight again, flashing his hot pink hindwings. I played this cat-and-mouse game with him for over 20 minutes. Finally he made the mistake of landing too close to me. I was able to distinguish his outline from the background, and I slammed my net down. As I pulled him out of the net, he tried very hard to kick me with his hind legs, which I noticed were covered in big spines. I made extra sure to keep out of range of his kicking hind legs. This was one large, powerful insect.


O. magnifica in my small field photography studio. 

Upon later inspection at the Wilson lab, it turned out that my catch was a new grasshopper species for the park, Ornithacris magnifica (now a subspecies of O. pictula). Previously we had recorded a related species Ornithacris cyanea as a very common animal here, so this was the park’s second species in this genus. O. magnifica inhabits herbaceous savannahs and miombo forest, exactly the habitat I had caught him in and one of the more common habitats in the park; proving once again that new discoveries abound in Gorongosa.



Johnsen, P. (1983). Acridoidea of Zambia. Part 4. Zoological Laboratory, Aarhus University (Denmark). 1983.


Ornithacris cyanea, the park’s more common species in the genus, which I was fortunate enough to also have the chance to photograph while in Gorongosa. Note the obvious differences in the color pattern, as well as structural differences such as the shape of the pronotal crest. 


Rearing Conocephalus gracillimus

Disclaimer: The title of this post is a bit misleading, as my entire experience with this species consists of a single individual which I brought through its imaginal molt only. However, the story is an interesting one, and hopefully what I have learned here may be of use to others trying to rear meadow katydids.

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A last instar male nymph of Conocephalus gracillimus, the Graceful meadow katydid.

This February, I received a shipment of insects from around Fort Lauderdale, FL. In the past I have had no problems with shipments of live insects, but unfortunately, the weather in Ithaca at that time happened to be particularly nasty (-20 degrees F), so the majority of the critters perished en route. Of the 5 animals that survived, only one made it past the first week in captivity. That animal was a small brown meadow katydid nymph, who was missing his right hind leg. For some reason, he seemed unable to jump, despite still having one functional hind leg, and walked everywhere. Given that many of the other creatures that had died were much hardier species (roaches, beetles, spiders), I didn’t have much hope for this guy’s survival. I established him in a container, the setup of which is detailed below:


The container is an empty couscous container with the lid removed and replaced with a fine mesh, which is held in place by a rubber band.


Inside the container, there is a substrate of EcoEarth, the Floridian twigs he was shipped with, and two food dishes. One contains small pieces of carrot, the other contains fish flakes for protein. The inhabitant is visible on the far right.

This setup seemed to work for the first couple of weeks. His copious frass indicated that he was feeding well on the carrot slices and fish flakes. I misted the container with water once or twice a day, and replaced the food every couple of days. At this point I was still unsure as to his identity. I knew his tribe (Conocephalini) and given that he appeared to be a last instar nymph with large wing buds, I figured that he had to be in the genus Conocephalus (the only other genera in that tribe would either be much larger or have very reduced wings). Looking through the range maps and descriptions at SINA, I hazarded a guess that he could be C. gracillimus, a Florida endemic species which seemed to match up with the general habitus and color scheme. However, given that he was a nymph, it was too early to be sure. I would have to examine several traits which required him to be an adult male. I hadn’t had much hope for him earlier, but given his success so far, I now began to hope for him to become an adult.

About 3 weeks later, he stopped eating, as evidenced by the fact that no more frass was accumulating on the sides of the container. His wing buds also started to bulge, and his body color started changing slightly. These were all signs that he was due for a molt. I had learned that a humid environment is important for molting, so I replaced the mesh on top of the container with the original lid to reduce water loss. This might have stimulated mold growth, so I removed the uneaten food to avoid that issue. Then I waited. I figured that he would molt at night, as most katydids do, so I checked on him every morning. Nothing happened for a week, and then one day there he was in all his glory as an adult male, with long, elegant wings!


Conocephalus gracillimus is not a large animal. Here he is perched on the tip of my finger.

Now that he was an adult, I placed the mesh back on top of the container so that I would be able to hear him once he started singing (meadow katydid calls tend to be extremely high-pitched and soft). I photographed him as he was, but since he was still teneral, I did not want to risk damaging him to get a look at his cerci. Judging from his overall appearance, my theory that he was C. gracillimus seemed more and more strong. Interestingly, he was now able to jump, although he could apparently only manage a weak little hop. 2.5 weeks later, his color had changed from the original brownish/pinkish hue to a more green/yellow shade, and his jumping abilities had improved dramatically. I decided to photograph him again, and this time I was able to image his cerci. Running him through the key in a paper by Rehn and Hebard (1915), and comparing images on SINA, I was able to conclusively pin him down as gracillimus, just as I had suspected from the beginning. Concidentally, the very next day he sang for the first time, and his song matched the recording on SINA perfectly.

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Adult male Conocephalus gracillimus, as he appeared while still teneral and then 2.5 weeks later, with his distinctively shaped cerci.

As of today (June 21th, about 4.5 months later!), he is still alive and well. He is very active and calls daily, although it’s very easy to miss due to his extremely quiet song. I wish I had a female so that I could try to breed them, but I don’t think I will be getting down to Florida any time soon. Regardless, I know now that Conocephalus gracillimus make good pets and are quite hardy in captivity should I ever run across this species again.


Face of Conocephalus gracillimus

Common Insects of the Kennebunk Beaches


Parson’s beach in Kennebunk, ME. At first glance, not much to be seen besides some algae.

In contrast to a meadow or forest, ocean beaches can often seem devoid of insect life. At first glance, there is not much to be seen besides seagulls and the occasional washed up dead jellyfish. However, there is often more than meets the eye on a beach. In particular, the wrack line, the highest reach of the high tide where dead seaweed and other debris piles up, is often teeming with life. The most obvious animals there will invariably be the small leaping beach hoppers (Talitridae), but these are crustaceans, not insects. The next most obvious animal will be this fly:

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Coelopa frigida – kelp fly (two different individuals) – Kennebunk, ME.

This is Coelopa frigida, the kelp fly. The 35 species in its small family, Coelopidae, all live in the coastal wrack zone and feed exclusively on decaying kelp. C. frigida is the only species in its genus in the eastern U.S. and can be found up and down the coast. These animals can be extremely, extremely abundant in their preferred habitat, but go less than a mile inland and you’ll be hard pressed to find even a single one. Having lived near a beach for about seven years, I never paid much thought to Coelopa. It was always a very common species in my area, even into very late fall, and was one of the first insects to emerge in the early spring. However, while taking Insect Biology during my first semester at Cornell, a class which required one to make an insect collection, I realized that here was a distinctive family that nobody could collect in Ithaca, there being no rotting seaweed anywhere near! While back home over Thanksgiving break, I collected a large series of them (which entailed about a minute of knocking the contents of a lump of old seaweed into a vial) and brought them back to Cornell with me to share. They were eagerly snapped up by other students looking for additional families to fulfill the class requirements.

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A weird sepsid – Orygma luctuosum (Kennebunk, ME). Note the differences in head shape, wing venation, and color from Coelopa

Occasionally while observing Coelopa swarming over the wrack on the beach, I would catch sight of another species of fly, quite similar to Coelopa, but larger and darker. These turned out to be Orygma luctuosum, another specialist on rotting seaweed. Orygma has its own monotypic subfamily in the family Sepsidae. This species much prefers to run than fly, and will often just try to hide under seaweed, rocks, or other debris rather than simply fly away. They seem to be less common than Coelopa but they are certainly around; you just need to search a bit more actively to get a good look at one.


Female Anisolabis maritima, the maritime earwig. Note the symmetrical forceps.

The third insect I almost always see at the beach is a very large, black, entirely wingless earwig called Anisolabis maritima. Commonly known as the maritime earwig, this is a European species that has spread to most shorelines worldwide. They are generalist scavengers/predators and usually feed on the kelp flies or beach hoppers that are so abundant in wrack. Anisolabis is likewise extremely abundant in this habitat, although I have found isolated individuals somewhat further inland, suggesting that they do get around a bit. Females tend clutches of eggs and supply food to young nymphs.

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In males of Anisolabis, the right forcep is much more bent inward than the left one, an easy way to tell the gender of your specimen. 

These three species I can almost always expect to see whenever I venture down to the Kennebunk beaches. However, on very windy days, there is often an abundance of other insect species, blown out of their field or forest habitats onto the beach. Beach collecting on windy days can be extremely productive, yielding tons of uncommonly seen stuff. But, I’ll leave that topic for another post.


The tracks of a maritime earwig in the sand.

Photographing a fishfly


Female Spring Fishfly, Chauliodes pectinicornis (Kennebunk, Maine). This is the good, in-focus shot that I was able to get, showing clearly the diagnostic black markings on the head and serrated antennae.

In the wee hours of the morning of June 1, 2016, I was out collecting insects in Maine when I stumbled upon a female Spring Fishfly, Chauliodes rastricornis. I usually find her cousin the Summer Fishfly (C. pectinicornis), so I scooped her up for a photograph later. I had photographed fishflies before, but this one was quite active, leaping into flight whenever I lifted the lid off of her container. This behavior resulted in some rather interesting, if not very well done photographically, shots. In fact, I think some of the horribly out-of-focus photos I took of her are extremely funny, and much more entertaining than the actual in-focus shot that I eventually did end up getting. Below is a small set of the outtakes.


Fishflies spread their wings like this for a brief second before they take off into flight.


The upstroke…


…and away she goes!


Not entirely sure what she was going for here…

I may write a post detailing more of the biology of fishflies in the future. That post, you can be assured, will not contain any blurry, out-of-focus photos like the ones above.

Georgia: The Elusive Pyrgocorypha


Pyrgocorypha habitat: mixed pine forest near Lake Sinclair, Georgia.

While in Georgia this March, I was on the lookout for several species of overwintering conehead katydids. I have already written about my adventures with and eventual successful capture of one species, Neoconocephalus triops, but now I want to talk about a second species that I came tantalizingly close to seeing alive in the wild: Pyrgocorypha uncinata, the hook-faced conehead*. This is a member of a mostly tropical group that just reaches into the southern U.S. Unlike other U.S. coneheads, the cone ends in a sharp, down-curved point, hence its common name. Brown females and green females occur in approximately equal numbers, but interestingly, males are always brown. Other aspects of their biology are poorly known.

On the last night of my stay (right after my triumphant capture of several N. triops!), I was wandering in the forests around Lake Sinclair when I suddenly heard a very strange call. It was a high-pitched sound, unmistakably a katydid call, but it certainly wasn’t triops. I started trying to home in on its source, and within minutes it seemed like the singers were all around me, hissing down from the treetops. My mind put the pieces of the puzzle together – this had to be Pyrgocorypha! I whipped out my phone and pulled up a recording of the beast on SINA. Perfect match. It was described as a “high-pitched ringing hiss modulated momentarily 4-5 times per second”, AKA exactly what I was hearing.

I was ecstatic, and immediately started frantically trying to track one down. Within minutes, it became quite clear to me that I was not going to be able to track any of the calls to their sources; they were all in the very tops of trees. With no other option, I stood there in the dark woods, listening to the ethereal soundscape. I noted that while triops had seemed to be in every other patch of forest I had searched, here Pyrgocorypha was king. The deafening chorus of Pyrgocorypha echoed all around me, while I could just make out a few triops sounding off further in the distance. This spectacle of pure music, composed of just two muscicians, was a magical, almost spiritual experience. It was not long-lived. Just as quickly as it had started, the chorus faded, and after about 15 minutes, there was nothing to be heard but a few laggardly triops.

Filled with awe but dejected that I hadn’t actually seen my quarry, I wandered back towards the campground bathrooms to make one last check around the lights for insects. There I met up with my friend, another member of Snodgrass and Wigglesworth, who was out collecting large spiders and small scorpions. I gave her the arachnids that I had come across, and she gave me an orthopteran that she had found dead in the bathroom stall. My jaw dropped when I saw the specimen. Here was my Pyrgocorypha, a male, just recently deceased!  Nothing else would have made me so happy at that point.

So I had heard the song and had the specimen, but a live individual still eluded me. I know their whereabouts now, and will find one someday, mark my words. Watch this space.


My dead male specimen of Pyrgocorypha uncinata. Note the sharp, down-curved point to the cone–the “hook” that gives this species its common name. 

*In case you were wondering, the other conehead species I was looking to find were several species of Belocephalus, the short-winged coneheads, but I did not see or hear any of those.



Vonones sp., an ornate harvestman (Eatonton, Georgia)

There are some groups of animals that I don’t really pay too much attention to until a really striking member of their lineage presents itself. The order opiliones is one of those groups. Known colloquially as “daddy-long-legs” or harvestmen, these strange little arachnids are neither spiders nor venomous (they are actually more closely related to scorpions). They are quite innocuous creatures actually, more inclined to drop one of their hair-thin legs and run away than attack anything. Most typical species, including the common north american genus Leiobunum, are seemingly just one-segmented bodies with 8 long legs. I come across them frequently in my outings and usually either pay them no mind or simply stop for a moment to observe before moving on. There are some species, though, that are much more bizarre-looking. This year I have come across two of them, and now I’ve started to pay a bit more attention to harvestmen.


A typical-looking harvestman, Leiobunum sp. (Kennebunk, Maine)

While in Georgia in March, I ran across several individuals of Vonones, a rather distinctive group of squat little harvestmen. These animals like to hang out under logs and other debris, and also fluoresce under UV light. When disturbed, they emit quinones (2,3-dimethyl-1,4-benzoquinone and 2,3,5-trimethyl-1,4-benzoquinone) from defensive glands and brush the chemicals on their attacker with the tips of their forelegs. These are certainly not the typical harvestman, so much so that some hobbyists keep them as communal pets.

A few weeks ago, while searching under logs on the Cornell Campus in Ithaca, I came across a single individual of an even stranger looking harvestman. Trogulus tricarinatus looks more like a large mite or perhaps a ricinuleid (dinospider) than the regular gangly harvestman I usually see around here. This was one I had been on the lookout for, since the few photos of the species on BugGuide are from the Cornell Campus and two localities in Massachusetts. This species is a European introduction, first recorded in the U.S. in 1962. It appears to be established in several parts of New York and Massachusetts but I could not find any information on whether it is spreading or whether it is having any impact on native species. An interesting question to look into, perhaps.


Trogulus tricarinatus (Ithaca, New York)


Banks, N. (1893). The Phalangida Mecostethi of the United States. Transactions of the American Entomological Society (1890-), 20(2), 149-152. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25076605

Eisner, T., Kluge, A. F., Carrel, J. E., & Meinwald, J. (1971). Defense of phalangid: liquid repellent administered by leg dabbing. Science, 173(3997), 650-652.

Muchmore, W. B. (1963). Two European arachnids new to the United States. Ent. News, 74(8), 208-210.

Georgia: Hunting Neoconocephalus triops

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Brown form male Neoconocephalus triops (Eatonton, Georgia)

Well it’s been almost 3.5 months since I last posted here. Time to change that!

During the week of March 26-April 1, 2016, I traveled with the Cornell undergraduate entomology club, Snodgrass and Wigglesworth, to Athens, Georgia. While there, we toured the University of Georgia entomology department and spent lots of time collecting. The insect fauna of the area was quite rich and my own specialty, the Orthoptera, did not disappoint. I collected about 16 species, 8 of which were new to me. Several of these were nymphs when I first found them, and I have been rearing many to adulthood in order to confirm their true identities. I may detail my experiences rearing these critters at some point here, but for now I want to talk about my adventures with one of the few orthopterans I found actually out as calling adults: Neoconocephalus triops, the broad-tipped conehead.

Several species of conehead katydids occur as adults in the southeastern U.S. in spring, and all of them were on my radar. N. triops was the most likely to be found. This species is the only conehead in the U.S. that has a cone wider than it is long, and it has spring and summer generations in much of its range. I had read up on them and knew what their song sounded like, and sure enough as soon as night fell on the campground we were staying at, a raucous, continuous buzz started up from the tall grass alongside the lake. Immediately I knew that this was triops. Unfortunately, this individual was calling from an area inaccessible from the shore I was on. I tracked another one soon after that was calling from the top of a tall tree. If you have any experience with coneheads, this will strike you as unusual–most coneheads call from tall grass, not from forest canopies. Triops is an exception, and can be found calling from ground level to tree tops.

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Green form female Neoconocephalus triops (Gray, Georgia)

I continued onward. Ahead of me I heard another male calling, this time seemingly from forest understory vegetation. I crept forward slowly. The closer I got to the sound, the more earsplitting it became. Finally, when the call was becoming too painful to listen to, I finally spotted the singer. He was perched head down on a branch about a foot in front of my face at eye level. His wings whirred at a ridiculous rate, and his antennae whipped back and forth, every which way. Despite the excruciating sound, I stood entranced. After a minute, I finally decided to try and catch him. I was completely unprepared for his response. My previous experience with another conehead, N. ensiger, had taught me that they typically drop head first into the leaf litter or grass, where they are relatively easy to catch. When my new quarry detected me, however, he shot off his branch, made several high-powered leaps from one branch to another, and then rocketed up into the forest canopy like a small bird. I cursed his superior abilities, but I knew that he had bested me, fair and square.

Although all three of these guys had eluded me, I knew that where there were three, there were bound to be more. That same night, while scouting the campground bathrooms in search of insects, I picked up a dead male. At last I had a specimen, but of course a live individual is worth so much more. It was getting late now, and the temperature had dropped to the point where I no longer heard calling males. It was time to call it a night.

The next two nights were also very cold, and no triops were in evidence. I began to worry that I wouldn’t get a chance to find a live individual. On the third night, our last night at that campground, a warm spell brushed aside my worries. Again I heard continuous buzzing, and this time there was a lot more of it. I told myself to find at least one adult this night.

My first couple of tries were duds. Again many of them were calling in inaccessible lake vegetation, or high up in trees. I decided to head for the deeper forest to see if I could locate any more in the understory. I was in luck: many males were here. Now that I knew their escape strategy, I figured I had a better chance of actually capturing one. Despite this, they continued to elude me for almost an hour. They were able to sense my presence from several feet away; several times I heard their buzzing stop, shone my light in front of me, and saw their ghostly shapes shooting off into the treetops. They were unbelievably fast and agile, but eventually I slammed my net down on two. One was a green morph male, which is highly unusual since according to SINA,  95% of overwintering males of this species are brown. Next I found a male who was either quite oblivious to my presence or simply didn’t care. He stopped calling when I got close, but then proceeded to simply walk about on the twig, eventually settling down in a nice position for a photo.


Cooperative brown form male Neoconocephalus triops, perched on a twig.

The night had yielded three males but no females. I figured I was out of luck there; how was I to find them when only the males sing? Luck was on my side, however. The next day we drove down to Tifton, GA, stopping on the way at a Waffle House restaurant. Smack dab on the front window was an enormous female N. triops! What’s more, I picked up yet another female sitting on a building at UGA Tifton. Partially by pure luck, the trip had yielded 4 male and 2 female specimens, not a bad haul for only a week of collecting.


The campground habitat where I found Neoconocephalus triops–understory forest by Lake Sinclair, Georgia.