A katydid’s tale

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The dark male Orchelimum nigripes, sitting on his usual perch.

A couple of months ago I wrote about finding and keeping Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. I finished that post with the note that three of my five nigripes (which I had collected on September 4th, 2016) were about to make it into February 2017, an unprecedented record. I intended to update that post when they finally died, but so many interesting things happened between the post and their deaths that I felt it deserved a full post rather than an add-on.

One of the three nigripes unfortunately did not make it into February, dropping off the map on January 21. The other two were alive well into February. Before this point I had not been able to tell them apart, but some rather interesting changes occurred at this late date that made it possible for me to characterize the two. One of them retained the usual summer coloration, as depicted in my photos from the earlier post. His wings were worn at the edges and he had a harder time climbing up smooth plastic surfaces, but otherwise he looked the same as he did when I first found him. The second katydid’s color changed dramatically. His entire body darkened, almost to the point of being completely black. If I had seen him in the wild then I would not have recognized him as a black-legged meadow katydid, so profound was the color transformation. I am not quite sure of the reason for his change. Many late-season grasshopper species (especially Melanoplus spp) turn darker as the season progresses, presumably to stay warm in increasingly cooler weather. The dark coloration may help them absorb more sunlight and thus prolong their lives as far into the fall as possible. I have noticed similar changes in katydids and tree crickets as well, but never so drastic. Why would this color change happen only in February, well past the time when these katydids would have reasonably needed it in the wild? And why didn’t it happen to the other male?

In any case, color was not the only thing that changed. Their behavior as the winter wore on underwent a surprising shift as well. Before, they had been very skittish around me. They would sing loudly and unabashedly in their private quarters, but as soon as I jarred the container or opened the lid to replace food, they would clam up, and sometimes spring about a few times in an escape attempt (which I always thwarted). This changed in February, however. When I opened the lids to their containers, they would momentarily stop singing, but after a few seconds start right back up again! Incredibly, it got to the point where I could carefully take them out, and they would continue singing while on my hand or on a table! Never in my history of keeping singing insects have I encountered an insect that would so brazenly sing in the face of imminent ‘danger’ from a large mammal such as myself. I was also able to do something I had only done before with mantids: offer them bits of food with forceps and have them accept it while sitting on my fingertips.

I also got to know their individual personalities a bit better. The one who retained his bright coloration was clearly the ‘alpha male’, as it were (for lack of a better term). His song was loud and persistent, and he clearly scared off the other male whenever they were allowed near each other. Once I let him get a bit too close to the other male and the ‘alpha’ rushed at him with mouthparts agape. Obviously I didn’t let this interaction go any further. The dark-colored male was equally persistent with his singing, but his song was not nearly as loud. Over time, it became very scratchy. The typical “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz” song slowly morphed into a “tick-tick-tick” followed by a low-pitched rattle. This male preferred to sit in his food dish and eat food when it was replaced, whereas the ‘alpha’ was constantly walking around. In this way they truly became little pet katydids, for a while.

Unfortunately I knew this had to end soon. On February 7th I found the ‘alpha’ lying dead on the bottom of his enclosure. With his death my room became a lot quieter. When the heater was off, the soft rattling of the dark male could be heard (it’s a loud heater!). I fully expected him to die soon after his companion, but once again I underestimated the little katydids. Throughout February he continued to sing, and soon I started hoping for what seemed like the impossible: for him to make it into March. For fear of stressing him out, I didn’t attempt to handle him any more and tried to make cleaning his cage as stress-less a procedure as possible. He became very, very docile towards the end. It was almost as if he knew what to do when I picked up the food dish, as he would step off it and wait on the substrate, climbing back on to eat once food had been replaced. On the last week of February I checked him constantly. Everything seemed normal and he continued to sing.

February 28th. I noticed that he had not sung all day. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but he had been singing constantly for the past several days. I went to bed hoping to god that he would be alive in the morning.

March 1. I sprung out of bed and quickly peered into his container. Aha! He was indeed alive! It was an unbelievable feat that this katydid had pulled off, surviving into March when by all accounts he should have died off in October or early November. But something was amiss. He wasn’t sitting in the food dish where he usually hung out, he was standing on top of the substrate. I opened the container and gently nudged him. He walked forward a few steps and then stopped. I could immediately tell that he was dying. I replaced his food and guided him back to the food dish. He was not interested but sat there anyway. I went to class, and when I came back he was standing on the substrate again. When I went to sleep that night, he was slumped in the corner, but still alive.

March 2, 2017. During the night he had quietly departed the land of the living. When I picked his lifeless body out of the enclosure, one hind leg kicked, a reflex muscle response. It was his last movement.

Truly, it was a privilege to care for these katydids. When I come across their species again I know that where one might see a delicate insect, there is a strong-willed, unbelievably tough little soul (I know I’m personifying but can you blame me?). And as this story will attest, the black-legged meadow katydid makes for a splendid singing companion that will outlive all your other favorite singers.

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The dark male nigripes, wings raised in song and tarsus raised in cleaning, on my hand.