One afternoon in early September of this year, I found myself situated in a thick stand of red-osier dogwood slightly taller than myself. For the past 30 minutes I had been wading through first goldenrod, then brambles, then dogwood, guided by my ears. I had heard a very enticing call and I was determined to find the singer, but this was getting to be too much. With sweat pouring down my neck, bramble thorns pricking my arms, and ants scurrying across my shirt, I strained my eyes to see through the maze of branches. The mystery caller was right above me, repeating himself quickly every few seconds – a fast “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz…tick-tick-tick-buzzzzzzz” –yet I could not see him. If this was who I thought it was, he should be quite colorful and obvious, and I could not figure out why I was having so much trouble. Suddenly I saw a hair-thin antenna flick out from behind a twig, then flick back. My heart skipped a beat, and I carefully grasped the dogwood, pulling downward. Once I was within range, I waved my hand behind the twig. A gorgeous multicolored katydid darted into view. “Gotcha”, I thought. I had fallen victim to the “meadow dance” that meadow katydids often perform to hide from predators, but now that he had revealed himself, he made an easy catch
Once I wrangled the katydid into a vial, I confirmed what I had suspected he was: Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. One of the more colorful meadow katydids in the north, nigripes has a wide range in the central U.S. and is mainly found in wetland areas. They are also found in the Chesapeake Bay drainage, where they are likely introduced by humans (first collected there in the early 1900’s). Here they sometimes hybridize with a closely related species, Orchelimum pulchellum, whose range is mainly along the east coast. The locality where I had just found my katydid was Chautauqua county in far western New York. I had never seen records of nigripes from New York, so I was quite excited and determined to collect more. It took some time, and although the rest were a bit easier than the first individual, it was still a lot of work. I eventually managed to capture 5 males (didn’t see a single female). Judging by the amount of calling I was hearing, there were likely hundreds more in the area, but it was starting to get dark and I had to take my leave.
I later contacted Dr. Leo Shapiro at the University of Maryland, who has worked extensively with Orchelimum nigripes. He confirmed my ID and informed me that the species has recently been detected in northern Ohio and southern Ontario, and although they had not been recorded from New York before, my discovery is not a surprise and may represent a natural range extension along Lake Erie.
I set up my new critters in containers. Meadow katydids I have kept in the past have fed well on carrot slices, and these katydids were no different. One died almost immediately for some reason, but the others accommodated quickly. Within a day or two of setup, they began to sing. And man did they sing. Day and night they belted out their ticking and whirring calls, sending me to sleep every evening and greeting me each morning. When I traveled to Mississippi in early October, I gave most of my pets to a friend to care for, but I left my 4 nigripes alone with some extra food since I didn’t want to burden my poor friend with that many hungry mouths to feed. I was not too attached to them at the time so it didn’t matter to me then if the nigripes lived or died. To my surprise when I returned, they were still alive; one even sang a few times while I cleaned up and organized material from the trip! Within a few hours of my replacing their food, all four started up singing again. I realized that I was dealing with a tougher species than I had reckoned.
Although I had a taste of their tenacity, come November I figured that the end was nigh. Even the toughest of singing Orthoptera usually don’t make it past late November in the northeast. One by one, the other singers in my arsenal died off, but the nigripes remained. I was shocked after final exams when the time came to head home from Cornell for winter break and they were still singing. As if to prove their point, I heard a few scattered songs break out from the back of the car during the trip home. Once home, I revised my estimate: surely they’d die off in December! But again I was wrong–one did die, but the other three kept on singing. I am watching them clamber about in their containers as I write this. No doubt their home in Chautauqua county is quite devoid of the songs of summer. I am awed at the ability of this little katydid species to survive far past their normal lifespan. Only once before have I had an orthopteran species that normally dies off in the fall survive so long into the winter–last year I cared for a male Microcentrum rhombifolium (greater anglewinged katydid) until his death on January 16th. This was astonishing in its own right, but if my nigripes survive for just one more week, they will make into February! Fingers crossed.