The genus Melanoplus contains around 240 species of mostly dull-colored grasshoppers distributed over most of the nearctic region, with one species in Eurasia. It is the most species-rich genus of Orthoptera in North America, and not surprisingly it is also one of the most confusing. Most species can only reliably be told apart by the male genitalia, and many short-winged species in the southern U.S. are still undescribed. I have had experience with quite a few species of the genus, but one always stood out to me as one I really wanted to see. The Melanoplus ‘viridipes group’ includes around 12 very similar looking species collectively known as green-legged grasshoppers, which may be subspecies or geographic variations of one (more study is needed!). They have very short wings as adults, barely reaching the middle of the abdomen, and are vividly patterned in green and black. From what I could gather, they occurred in small colonies in open areas at forest edges. They do not appear in most field guides and are not well known.
While looking through specimens in the Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC), I discovered that one species in the viridipes group, M. eurycercus, had apparently been recorded in and around Ithaca. In early July, my dad visited me in Ithaca and we decided to make a search for this animal. We first checked out a few sites within a few miles of Cornell’s campus, turning up quite a few orthopteran species, mostly nymphs, and even another Melanoplus that was new to me – M. confusus. While this was certainly exciting, I knew that my real quarry was still out there. The next day we visited an area about 1.5 hours away from Cornell that Jason Dombroskie of the CUIC had recommended I visit, Cameron State Forest.
Not more than 10 minutes into the hike, I noticed a sluggish grasshopper slowly moving across the path and quickly grabbed it. Excitement – it was a female of M. eurycercus! I bottled her and started moving ahead looking for more. The trail emerged out into a small forest clearing and then headed into the forest again. In the clearing I found 3 more females on the ground, some of them with heavy parasitic mite loads. All were quite easy to capture, just managing a couple of weak hops before settling in the grass. Once I thought I saw a male sitting in vegetation, but it disappeared before I could get a better look. A male would be the big prize, since they are much more strikingly patterned and also have the distinctive genitalia that would confirm their identity. After searching the clearing for a while, I decided to move on, hoping to find similar habitats.
We spent the rest of the day walking the trail down to a small prairie area. Many interesting insects were present, including more Melanoplus confusus, but eurycercus had not shown itself since the original forest clearing. When we arrived back at the clearing while returning to the car, I decided to have another look to see if I could find a male. I spotted several more females before I saw what I was looking for – a gorgeous male eurycercus sitting on some low bramble leaves. I carefully moved towards him, but once I got within about two feet of him he spooked and shot off into the vegetation, never to be seen again. I knew now what I was up against, and began systematically combing the clearing for more. It took me about 20 minutes to find another, sitting at the edge of a thick fern tangle. I moved ever so slowly to try and intercept him before he noticed me. Of course he did notice me and made a high-powered leap into the ferns, but I was prepared. I slammed my cupped hands down onto the spot where it looked like he landed, and then slowly lifted my fingers, feeling for a struggling little presence. After a minute, it was looking like he wasn’t there. Suddenly I saw movement off to the right – I had misjudged my grab! I pounced on that spot, and sure enough I had him. He was lovely, looking just like the images I had seen at BugGuide. I find it extremely rewarding to come across something that you have never seen before and immediately recognize it due to having seen it in books or online. Of course now that I had put out all this effort to capture this one male, I caught another one within minutes that was just sitting on the trail and didn’t even try to hop off. This one was a bit more beat up, missing an antenna and hosting several mites.
So the entire adventure was a success. Males and females of my quarry, plus another species that I hadn’t even expected!