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.

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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.

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

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