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.
*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.