Solving the mystery of a baby grasshopper

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The mystery grasshopper nymph (Rome, NY)

In early June this year, I visited the Rome Sand Plains in Oneida county, NY. This interesting area is one of only two inland pine barrens in the state, and is characterized by sand dunes interspersed with pine barrens and peat bogs. The Sand Plains are known to be a haven for many rare birds, plants, and butterflies, so I figured there’d be plenty to see. The place really was quite unusual compared to the usual central New York habitats; it was much more reminiscent of habitats typical of coastal Maine and Massachusetts. Being so early in the season, however, most orthopterans were tiny babies. Small katydid and cricket nymphs were abundant, but I recognized them all as common species. The spring field cricket Gryllus veletis was cheerily chirping all around, the only insect singer out and about. Grasshoppers were less abundant. I found one adult Chortophaga viridifasciata and several Melanoplus nymphs, but among them there was one little grasshopper nymph that stuck out. It certainly wasn’t Melanoplus; it reminded me somewhat of the seaside grasshopper Trimerotropis maritima, but that species is restricted to shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes. I picked it up for photos, hoping to be able to identify it later.

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The habitat at Rome Sand Plains, NY: scattered bunch-grasses on sandy soil, surrounded by pine/oak woodland.

Back home, I hit the books. It was definitely an oedipodine (band-winged grasshopper) nymph, but which one? 10 genera were in range, and I could easily eliminate 7 of those based on the fact that they looked nothing like images of nymphs found online or elsewhere. I was left to ponder PsinidiaDissosteira, and Spharagemon. Psinidia was ruled out since it has two deep cuts in the pronotum and my nymph had only one. I had seen many nymphs of Dissosteira before, and although structurally my nymph did look similar, the coloring was unlike any Dissosteira I had ever seen, so I dismissed it. I then came to Spharagemon, a genus with which I have very little experience. Looking further, I discovered that there were 4 species of the genus in range, and two of them were restricted to habitats (open rock ledges and forest leaf litter) that did not match the open, sandy habitat of the Rome site. This left me with S. marmorata and S. collare, both found on open sandy soil and never before seen by me. Collare was mentioned as being rather similar to Dissosteira in shape, but smaller and more squat (and with very different hind wing coloration). I figured that this had to be it, but even if I was wrong it was going to be something I’d never seen before. Unfortunately the nymph died a few days after I found it, so I knew I was going to have to go back to solve the mystery.

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Adult male and female Spharagemon collare from Rome Sand Plains.

I was in Ithaca at the time, and I was not the only one of my friends that wanted to head up that way, but only one of us had a car (and it wasn’t me!). Working out a time that we were all free for the entire day seemed to take forever, but the day finally came on July 30th. We stopped at several other sites for birding before arriving at Rome. The sun was out, and things were singing. As soon as I stepped out of the car, a few adults of Dissosteira carolina, with their characteristic black wings, flew away from me. Could it be that my mystery hopper was actually just a Dissosteira dressed up for a party? I wandered out further into the sand pit. If my Spharagemon hunch was right, my hoppers should be flying away from me with yellow wings, not black. A quick stroll back and forth across the sand pit stirred up nothing. Time for a different tactic. I unpacked my net and started sweeping the low grasses at the edge of the sand. Suddenly something weird flew away from me. It wasn’t Dissosteira, but it definitely didn’t have yellow wings either. I chased the hopper and caught it. It WAS Spharagemon collare, but she was teneral (recently molted) and thus hadn’t developed the yellow wing colors yet! At last my mystery was solved. I walked more carefully around the sand pit and eventually located a few other individuals. I was extremely lucky that most were teneral since they were less mobile and thus were great cooperative photographic subjects. After having achieved great success here, we drove to two other spots within the Rome Sand Plains that also had open sand dunes, and indeed S. collare was found at those sites as well. It’s probable that the Rome population of this species is quite isolated from other populations, since there are many miles of forest and farmland between Rome and the next closest sandy areas. Such is likely the case with many of the animals and plants found in these kind of habitats.

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Male Spharagemon collare in habitat.

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