Southwestern Research Station, week 1: new vistas, lots of hopper nymphs, and a flash mishap


Road to the station.

It’s been a little over a week since I arrived in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona, and I’ve got a lot to write about! I’ll only touch on a few topics here and hopefully expand on them in the coming weeks.

First thing’s first: there are some unbelievably beautiful and majestic landscapes here. In my life I’ve experienced many weird and wonderful habitats of the eastern U.S., from dry Florida scrub to cold sphagnum bogs; I’ve seen the Belizean rainforest; I’ve even been on the floodplains of Mozambique. But nothing compared to my first sight of the towering Chiricahua mountains rising up from the desert floor. Every day I walk out of my room and look up at the mountains, marveling at the fact that I am in such a place. The station is situated in a canyon, so within a short walk one can encounter several different habitats, all equally stunning. To my delight, the trees of this mountainous landscape are not too dissimilar from my familiar trees in the northeast. There are oaks, pines, junipers, boxelder, and sycamore – just different species than I’m used to, but not so weird as to be unrecognizable.


View from the top of Rattlesnake Hill.


Male (right) and female Abedus herberti giant water bug parents. 

Although you might think that southern Arizona would be warm and sunny all year round, that is certainly not the case here. The peaks of the Chiricahuas are snow-capped, and even here in the canyon, temperatures typically goes down to 30s (F) during the night. Days are generally pleasant, with temps in the upper 60s and lower 70s. I’m told that by April things will be much different. Despite the somewhat chilly weather, there is still plenty to see on the insect front. Moths come to the lights each evening, the pool is alive with water bugs, and some flowering shrubs are beginning to attract the first native bees and butterflies of the year. The buggin’ is quite varied, and in fact I have been very excited to see a few different bugs and behaviors that are typical fare of introductory entomology textbooks (but seemingly rarely found in the north!). It’s well known, for example, that many giant water bugs (Belostomatidae) exhibit male parental care. Females glue their eggs to the male’s back, and he protects them and aerates them until they hatch. A few days ago I was poking around the station pool and found an Abedus herberti giant water bug carrying eggs! It was very cool to see this behavior that I had read about for years but never seen. Another poolside find was a gorgeous Hyles lineata (white-lined sphinx moth) nectaring among the flowers. A photo of a sphinx moth hovering in front of a flower with its long proboscis extended to reach and suck up the nectar is a typical image in biology textbooks, but it was really something else to see this large, powerful animal going about its business (luckily, it didn’t seem to mind my flash snapping away!).


Hyles lineata (white-lined sphinx) nectaring.

On the orthoptera front, things are pretty slow unfortunately. Most of the orthopteran fauna in the area matures later in summer, so I’m stuck with whoever overwinters as nymphs or adults – not too many species! I have been lucky enough to find 10 different species (11 if you count the Gryllodes from Tucson, which are not present at the station), most of which are new to me. I’m hoping that the nymphs among the lot will mature by the time I leave. It’s quiet at night – nobody singing except the occasional owl.


Orthopterans found around the Southwestern Research Station, AZ, March 7th to March 11th, 2018.

Speaking of vertebrates, my camera has been pointed at them quite a bit more than usual. There are numerous mammals, birds, and herps that are restricted to the Chiricahuas (at least in the U.S.), so I’ve tried to document them whenever I can. My macro lens is obviously not the best tool to image a bird, but I think I’ve done a reasonable job with a few species given my equipment.


Mexican Jay (Aphelocoma wollweberi), a common bird typical of mountainous areas in the southwest and in Mexico. 


Sceloporus jarrovii, a nice-looking lizard that hangs out behind the lab buildings. 

Finally, The Frog Incident. I had heard that there were one or two individuals of the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis) living in the pool, but never saw them during the day. On Tuesday night I went to the pool in early evening to release the aforementioned giant water bug with eggs, and saw the frog hanging out by the edge! I raced to get my camera, but unfortunately the frog wasted no time before diving to the bottom. I poked around the other side of the pool and discovered a second leopard frog. This one was much more cooperative at first, staying still while I slowly moved closer with my camera. It got to the point where I was mere inches away. Then the frog jumped at me. Now before you laugh, let me tell you that this is one large frog, and it was pitch black outside at this point except for my fading headlamp beam. I spooked and my flash flew right into the pool. It took about 2 seconds to say “oh shit” and reach in to grab my poor, soaked flash unit (luckily this was the shallow end of the pool). I immediately hurried over to the technical equipment lab, which is kept much warmer than the other buildings, and attempted to dry everything out. Nothing seemed to be functioning so I eventually brought them back to my room and laid them out there overnight. In the morning the remote trigger was working but the flash refused to fire. This was really not ideal. I had a backup flash unit that I could use, but it’s an old one and very cranky. Luckily it never came to that, for just yesterday my flash showed signs of life, and now it appears to be no worse for the wear.


The image that almost cost me my flash – Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis)


Arizona prologue


A cholla cactus near my hotel in Benson, AZ.

Yesterday I departed the grey, cold, and rainy northeast for the sunny southwestern U.S. My destination is the Southwestern Research Station (SWRS; owned by the American Museum of Natural History), where I will be staying for the next 6 weeks under the intern/volunteer program. There will be plenty to keep me busy, but I hope to post here weekly with various cool plants, herps, bugs, birds, and whatever else I may come across. In the meantime, here are a few things I found along the journey.


Female tropical house cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus, from Tucson, AZ. Also known as the banded or decorated cricket – easy to see why! Note her very short wings.


Scenery flying over Arizona and in Tucson was pretty spectacular for someone who’s never really experienced the southwest before. All sorts of odd trees and cacti along the roads, and desert scrub/mountainous landscapes – quite different from the typical woods and fields of the northeast! I didn’t get much of a chance to look around in Tucson, but while waiting at the Greyhound bus station, I heard some Gryllodes sigillatus calling under rocks. This is a common pantropical cricket species that associates with humans and is increasingly used as a food source for pets like lizards. I flipped a few stones and came up with two females.

The hotel grounds in Benson looked cool from Google maps, but yielded rather sparse pickings for bugs. There were a few conspicuous harvester ant nests on the ground, as well as some mantid oothecae and bagworm cases attached to trees and bushes, but that was about it. I did manage to scare up two baby Psoloessa from dry grass, and I picked up a drab moth near the hotel lights. A lone Gryllus was chirping under some rocks, but he stopped calling once I approached and that was that. I was followed around by some cactus wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus, graciously determined by Max Kirsch), and saw some cool cacti. I’m sure I’ll see lots more at the research station!


Some sort of a bagworm case in Benson, perhaps Oiketicus sp.


Harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus (det. J. Trager)


Psoloessa nymph, found in dry grass at the hotel. I only saw about 4 of these little guys and they were extremely hard to distinguish from the bits of dry plant matter my feet kicked up as I walked – plus they were stupendous jumpers!


Morning sunrise in Benson.

Killer moths


Adult female Fulgoraecia exigua – the planthopper parasite moth (Memorial Lake, PA)

When one thinks of moths and their caterpillars, the first image that comes to mind is not of a killer that sucks its victims dry. Indeed, the majority of Lepidoptera are herbivores or detritivores. Some species occasionally resort to cannibalism or scavenging dead or dying insects when starving, but strictly carnivorous caterpillars are few and far between. The ones that exist, however, are pretty striking. Probably the most well-known and exciting are the Hawaiian species of the genus Eupithecia, small inchworms that are sit-and-wait predators of fruit flies. Videos such as this one abound on the internet, and it’s hard not to be impressed by their hunting prowess. Hawaii also hosts the predatory Hyposmocoma pupumoehewa (literally, ‘snail’s nightmare’), which ties down snails with silk, forces its way into the snails’ shells, and eats them. In the continental U.S, the predaceous Lepidoptera are not quite as cinematic, but equally fascinating.

There is a nice article on BugGuide that highlights the meat-eating moths of north america. One charismatic butterfly, the Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) of the eastern U.S, feeds on wooly aphids as a caterpillar. The larva hangs out in the aphid colonies and munches its way through aphid after aphid. These colonies are usually attended by ants, who feed on the honeydew produced by the aphids and in theory are supposed to protect the aphids from predators – obviously they fail to do their job when Feniseca is involved. I first heard about this insect when I was in elementary school and I was told of an aphid colony in Holden, ME, where the Harvester was reported to frequent, but I never found it there. Years passed before I finally found a single adult sitting on a building on Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, NY. I have yet to see the caterpillar…


The Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) from Ithaca, NY. A very innocent-looking butterfly, given the aphids it destroyed as a caterpillar. 

But among all these strange lepidopterans, one group stands out. The family Epipyropidae, with only 32 species worldwide, is fully parasitic on true bugs, mostly planthoppers but with at least one species, Epipomponia nawai, parasitizing large cicadas (see here for a fantastic photo of this). In the U.S. we have but one species, Fulgoraecia exigua, usually called the planthopper parasite moth. It ranges from southern NY to FL, west to CA, and has been found parasitizing many different planthopper species. The eggs are laid on plants, and the first instar caterpillars locate and attach to a planthopper, feeding on its bodily fluids for the rest of its days. The moth is a drab gray triangle that sometimes arrives at lights.

Fulgoraecia exigua cocoon (Owings Mills, MD)

I have run across this odd animal on two occasions. In Maryland (2014), I came across several Fulgoraecia cocoons, which are immediately recognizable because they look like the Sydney Opera House (seriously!). I wanted to collect one to rear out the moth, but I feared I’d destroy the cocoons if I tried to detach them from the substrate, so I left them alone. Last fall (2017), I was beating shrubbery in Lebanon county, PA, when I noticed a planthopper Metcalfa pruinosa in my net that looked a little woozy. Upon closer inspectionI found a Fulgoraecia larva attached to the hopper’s abdomen! Unfortunately by the time I got around to photographing it, the caterpillar had already dropped off the (now deceased) planthopper and spun its cocoon, so I was unable to photograph the parasitic behavior. Two weeks later, the adult moth emerged and I was finally able to at least get a shot of that life stage. Hopefully someday I’ll be lucky enough to photograph the caterpillar parasitizing a planthopper.


Empty cocoon and extruded pupal case of the Fulgoraecia adult in the first photo of this post. A small clutch of eggs (infertile) laid by the moth can be seen on the right. 

Yellow, orange, or red wings?


‘Typical’ male (left) and female Psinidia fenestralis with orange hind wings (Townsend, MA)

In my personal collection of Orthoptera, there is a row of grasshoppers with radically different wing colors. Most have bright orange wings. A few bear pale yellow wings. One has a lovely rosy red shade. Yet if you examined the determination labels on all those specimens, you’d find that they are all identified as one species: Psinidia fenestralis. What gives? The answer has to do with individual variation as well as geographic location.


Aberrant Psinidia with rosy red hind wings, with the male again on left (Millersville, MD)

Psinidia is a small band-winged grasshopper, less than half the length of the common Carolina (or black-winged) grasshopper Dissosteira carolina. It is widespread in the eastern U.S, but is also fairly habitat-restricted, preferring to live in small open patches of sand within grassy areas. It has a distinctive ‘bug-eyed’ appearance along with very long, somewhat thickened, antennae. The body pattern is extremely variable, but usually perfectly matching the appearance of the sand on which it lives. Adults are usually present from July to October, and in Florida they are out year-round. When disturbed, they do not fly far, making short, fast flights that often circle back to the same area of sand. I have discovered several populations of this grasshopper up and down the east coast. In almost every population, the hind wing coloration has been different. In part this is due to individual variation – ‘normal’ populations of the species have bright orange hind wings, but occasional populations have rosy red wings. In Florida, where there is sandy habitat almost everywhere, it seems as though orange-winged individuals prevail, judging from BugGuide records. My single specimen from Florida had orange wings, but a population I found in a small isolated sand pit in Maryland consisted solely of rosy red-winged specimens.


Typical habitat of Psinidia fenestralis – open sandy patches in grassy areas (Lee, NH)


A male Psinidia in habitat (Lee, NH)

In the New England states, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Populations with yellow wings become more prevalent as one travels up the coast, with yellow-winged individuals eventually becoming dominant in Maine. I am not sure as to why this is, but the northeastern populations tend to be very localized and quite far away from other populations. As such, there probably isn’t a lot (perhaps not at all?) of interbreeding. Compounded by this is the fact, mentioned earlier, that Psinidia doesn’t like to leave its sandy habitat, and would be highly unlikely to travel long distances across unsuitable habitat like forests, swamps, or urbanized places. This means that these isolated populations are free to develop without influence from other populations, and simply because of random genetic drift, an odd wing color variant might become the dominant one. This still doesn’t explain why yellow wings totally dominate in Maine, though. Perhaps somehow it is advantageous in more northern locales? Or is there some other selective agent at work? More study is needed for sure. In any case, I have located 6 Psinidia populations in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachustts (2 per state!), and there is a clear line of transition. Both Maine populations, the more northerly New Hampshire population, and one of the Massachusetts populations all have yellow wings, and are all in very small, restricted places. The other Massachusetts population was quite large and in an extensive sandy area, and all individuals bore orange wings. The southern New Hampshire population is particularly compelling – most of the Psinidia here had yellow wings, but a few boasted pale orange wings! Clearly there is something going on here of interest. I am hoping to locate more Psinidia populations of the northeast in the future to get a clearer picture of what is happening.


Northeastern yellow-winged variant of Psinidia fenestralis. Male (once again on left) from Old Orchard Beach, ME; female from Barnstead, NH; wing from South Berwick, ME.

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Map showing my own collection localities for Psinidia in ME, NH, and MA, with the hind wing color at each location marked. 

Cupedids: Triassic relics in our backyards


Cupedid Tenomerga cinerea from Ithaca, NY.

Some exciting nature discoveries come with equally thrilling stories of pursuit through field and forest. Others involve no adventuring at all, no action-packed hunt or anything. Such has been the case with my encounters with the odd beetle family Cupedidae. These insects’ strange biology and evolutionary history, however, more than make up for any excitement lost in capture, for cupedids are one of the oldest relic beetle families in the world. Their fossils date back to the Triassic Period 199 million years ago, and their basic structure hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. At first glance they resemble squared-off longhorn beetles (Cerambycidae), but the “reticulated” pattern of their elytra (hardenedforewings) and the little protuberances on their heads mark them as something very different. Cupedids tend to have long antennae and a parallel-sided body, and are covered in scaly setae. There are only 33 living species worldwide, 4 of which occur in the U.S. Two of those species, Priacma serrata and Prolixocupes lobiceps, live in the western U.S, while the other two, Tenomerga cinerea and Cupes capitatus, make their homes in deciduous woodlands of the east. Very little is known about how any cupedids make their living, but the few that have been studied feed on fungus-infested wood as larvae. Oddly, Priacma is supposedly attracted to household bleach, suggesting that some chemical component of bleach mimics one of the beetle’s pheromones. Undoubtedly there is much to be learned about these mysterious animals.


Cupes capitatus (Kennebunk, ME)

I have been fortunate enough to see both eastern U.S. species of Cupedidae, but unfortunately there is not much to say about my finding of either. My first and only Cupes capitatus was found sitting on the wall of my old middle school in southern Maine back in July 2013. It lived for several weeks in captivity, but rarely did anything other than stand around on the piece of wood in its container. When I handled the beetle, it retracted its legs and played dead, often not moving again for hours. I found it a rather cute little animal, with its big eyes and knobby head. Cupes is actually the rarer of the two eastern cupedids (nothing is known about its larvae or food source!), so I half expected to find Tenomerga that year too. Instead, fast forward to July 2017, where I was walking behind a building on the Cornell University campus checking the lights for insects. Many spiders like to build their webs here to take advantage of the bounty, and I make it a point to see what they have caught, but I was shocked to spot a Tenomerga cinerea hanging from a strand! The spider was nowhere in sight, and the beetle was still alive as I carefully plucked it from the web. This cupedid acted much the same as the Cupes, just standing around and playing dead whenever handled. Unfortunately it only lived for about a week indoors. For those of you who might want to see these interesting beetles for yourselves, I have no special advice other than to spend a lot of time outdoors. It’s really just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.


Tenomerga cinerea on its back, showing how neatly packaged the beetle appears when playing dead.

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.


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.


Male Spharagemon collare in habitat.

Black-and-white wonders


Barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) in pine-oak barrens habitat (Plymouth, MA)

Sometimes life comes at you in unexpected ways; such was the case this fall, on a trip to Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, MA. I had just finished examining a nice female Chinese mantis (Tenodera parasinensis) sitting on a telephone pole near the visitor’s center, when I looked up to see a black and white blur approaching me. It looked to be a little smaller than my hand and flying rapidly and erratically. Having just read about this animal online a few days before, I immediately knew what I was looking at, despite not actually being able to see it. “Barrens buckmoth!”, I yelled, to no one in particular. The fluttering form zipped overhead and whizzed off down the trail. No way was I going to pursue; when a bug like that is on a mission, one dares not intervene.

Buck moths (genus Hemileuca) are medium-to-large saturniid moths widespread in the U.S. Many are fall-emerging insects, with the caterpillars growing up during the spring and summer, pupating, and emerging as adults in autumn. Caterpillars are capable of inflicting a powerful sting. There are 23 species, all variously patterned in black and white, or sometimes with splashes of other colors. Only 2 of those species make it into the northeastern U.S. One, Hemileuca lucina, is actually a New England specialty, having only been found in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. It is usually found in wet, boggy meadows, where its principal host, Spirea alba (white meadowsweet) occurs. As caterpillars mature, they tend to disperse and feed on numerous other plants before pupating. The other species, Hemileuca maia, is distributed more widely across the eastern states, but is rare in the northern part of its range. In New England it is restricted to pine-oak barrens, where its sole host is scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia). Farther south it gains an additional host, live oak (Quercus virginiana), which is a common southern tree. Here the Buckmoth is sometimes considered a pest, a far cry from its status in my neck of the woods.


Hemileuca lucina caterpillar (Scarborough, ME)

Prior to this year, I had only ever seen one individual of the genus: a good-sized H. lucina caterpillar that I had found feeding on Spirea at the edge of a salt marsh in Maine. Ordinarily I would have reared it to adulthood after photographing it, but this was only a few days before I left for Gorongosa, Mozambique, and I knew the caterpillar would die if I left it alone for several weeks. I ended up returning the animal to his home. After I returned from Mozambique, I had no time to check that area for adults before I headed off to begin college in Ithaca, a place where no buckmoths are known to live. In the past two years I haven’t been anywhere near a good buckmoth locality and the idea of seeing them faded from my mind. This October, however, I was in New England again, and one day while gathering food for a pet praying mantis, I came across a big adult buckmoth stumbling along a boardwalk in a powerline right-of-way! There was lots of Spirea present, and a little research later led me to conclude that this was also H. lucina.


New England Buckmoth (Hemileuca lucina) found in Rochester, NH

The story picks up again about a week later at Myles Standish, site of my first encounter with a healthy adult buckmoth. This state forest is a huge pine-oak barren, so I figured these had to be H. maia (some later research confirmed that H. lucina is absent here, while H. maia is relatively abundant). I didn’t expect to be able to catch or photograph any, given my first sighting. Throughout the day I continued to see them from time to time, always flying overhead, weaving swiftly through the pine branches. Towards the end of my visit I made a quick foray into a grassy area to listen for any interesting katydids. Suddenly a black and white form in front of me caught my eye. I stopped short. There was a buckmoth, a beautiful H. maia, just sitting on a grass stem! I ever-so-carefully set down my backpack, grabbed my camera, and inched forward for some photos. Luckily the moth seemed pretty oblivious to my presence, so I was able to get a few nice shots. Quite nice to be able to see both northeastern species of buckmoths within 2 weeks!


Hemileuca maia is generally darker colored than H. lucina, with more well-defined black and white bands.