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.

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A tough new resident of NY

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Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. A striking animal with a distinctive red and white face and dark legs. (Clymer, NY)

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.

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Nigripes calling in situ at the collection site.

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.

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One of my three remaining nigripes having a bite to eat.

Bush katydids

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A male fork-tailed bush katydid perched on a birch (ha!) twig (Sanbornville, NH).

The katydids of the genus Scudderia, often known as bush katydids, are among the most commonly encountered katydids in the U.S. Legions of photos of the small, colorfully banded nymphs are posted to BugGuide and iNaturalist every spring, and images of the adults are equally abundant. The habits of Scudderia are generally similar, with the majority of species living in deciduous shrubby areas and feeding on broadleafed foliage and flowers (of course, there are exceptions). Eggs are laid inside leaves between the two layers, a most interesting sight to see. Species in the genus are very similar, and best told apart by the shape of the male’s supra-anal plate. There are 8 species recorded from the U.S, six of which I have seen. The two that I am still on the lookout for, S. cuneata and S. mexicana, have restricted ranges (the far southeast and southwest, respectively), while the other species are more widespread. Here I will briefly discuss the species I have seen with some notes on what I have observed.

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Scudderia “gimme a high five” furcata (Bear, DE)

By far the most ubiquitous bush katydid is the fork-tailed, Scudderia furcata. The only species found coast to coast and in every U.S. state, this guy could turn up in most habitats. I have seen them in forests, shrubby meadows, tall grass fields, swamps, marshes, suburban habitats, gardens, and sometimes at lights. The species is named for the large, inflated supra-anal plate that is shaped like a horseshoe. The ovipositor is almost always brown in my observation. This is the Scudderia that I usually see survive longest into the fall; I even found one enterprising individual in early November once! He was browned with age, but still managed to call a few times: a single “tsip” repeated once or twice every 10 minutes or so. This obviously makes them a real challenge to track down by song.

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Scudderia fasciata (South Berwick, ME)

The species most easily confused with the fork-tailed is S. fasciata, the treetop bush katydid. Found in the northeast from Michigan to Maine, this animal has an almost identical call and supra-anal plate to S. furcata, but differs strikingly in habitat and coloration. The treetop katydid is found almost exclusively in canopies of coniferous trees, and fittingly has dark striping on the wings to blend in with conifer needles, along with a wine-colored belly and ovipositor. I have only seen an individual once in real habitat; however they regularly show up at lights. I wrote about an interesting incident with one of these creatures here.

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Scudderia curvicauda (Ithaca, NY)

Scudderia curvicauda, the curve-tailed bush katydid, is a large, widespread eastern species. They tend to inhabit open meadows, often with goldenrod. I don’t come across them too often but when I do, they are plentiful. The call is a series of 3-4 tsips, repeated every few minutes. They are named for the male supra-anal plate which resembles a whale’s fluke from above. The female’s ovipositor is usually green in my experience.

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Scudderia pistillata (Alton Bay, NH)

The most northern of the Scudderia is the broad-winged bush katydid, S. pistillata. Aptly named, it is the only bush katydid with the outer wing length only three times its width. Its supra-anal plate is very similar to that of S. curvicauda, but subtly different–see the photos. I tend to see this species in wet goldenrod meadows, typically rather early in the season (July). The broad-winged bush katydid is notable for its ability to “count”. With each successive song, a calling male adds one or two buzzes. Females have been shown to prefer males who can “count” the highest.

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Scudderia texensis (Derby, IN)

We next come to the large Scudderia texensis, perhaps misnamed Texas bush katydid, which is actually distributed across the entire eastern U.S. Supposedly very common in many habitats, this is a species which I saw for the first time this year, in southern Indiana. I recognized it immediately by its distinctive supra-anal plate, which has a small tooth in the middle. I have been looking for this animal for years, checking every Scudderia that I come across, and never found it in a lot of likely habitats. Perhaps I am simply missing something, but I think this animal is a lot less common than the range maps suggest.

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Scudderia septentrionalis (Ithaca, NY)

Finally we have Scudderia septentrionalis, the Northern bush katydid. Here is a supreme irony: septentrionalis is a supposedly rare species that I see very commonly, while texensis is a supposedly common species that I have only seen once. The northern bush katydid is distinctive for its lack of a supra-anal plate, having instead a blunt, truncated end to the abdomen. This is a species of the high deciduous canopy, with the most complex song of all the bush katydids: a series of ticks followed by “tzee-tzee-tzee-tzee”. I was hearing this species up in the trees long before I knew what I was listening to. A lot of the literature mentions this species as extremely rare; indeed, never have I come across one in habitat, but this is the Scudderia that is most strongly attracted to lights, and this is how you find them. I have been at lights where there were over 30 individuals jumping and flying and bouncing off of everything. To see septentrionalis you have to time your hunt just right: they have a short window of emergence, usually lasting from mid July to early August.

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A female curve-tailed bush katydid cleaning her ovipositor (Old Orchard Beach, ME).

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A collage of the various Scudderia supra-anal plates.

Unexpectedly agile

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The lovely Orchelimum agile, most fleet-footed of katydids (Mason, OH).

I am always on the lookout for interesting orthopteran range expansions. Not only is it fun to hear new species calling in unfamiliar places, it also increases our knowledge of the spread of these animals and how this may be related to climate change and other human-influenced causes. I have written about the remarkable Orocharis saltator before, and now it’s time to note another traveler.

While driving down to Mississippi from Ithaca, NY, I kept track of what was singing in the vicinity of gas stations and rest areas where we stopped. Mostly it was the usual cast of characters – the trills of ground crickets, the short buzzes of short-winged meadow katydids, and indeed, the cheery calls of Orocharis as well. At one spot, a Dairy Queen in southern Ohio, I heard something different – a loud buzz preceded by a series of ticks. I recognized it as a greater meadow katydid in the genus Orchelimum. I don’t encounter species in this genus often so I was unsure of which species it could be at first. Tracking one individual in an ornamental yew in the parking lot, I spotted a large katydid with a pale face and a light green body. As I leaned in to get a better look, I accidentally jostled the bush and he bolted. I turned my attention to a second singer, again in a yew next to the Dairy Queen drive-in. This one stopped calling when I was a few feet from the bush, and standing in the middle of the drive-in, with cars maneuvering all around me, was clearly not an option. A third singer, calling from an ornamental juniper, was situated higher in the plant and was less shy. I caught him, but wrangling him into a vial was a difficult process as he was incredibly acrobatic, springing everywhere as soon as he was not restrained. Once I was able to get a good look at him, I recognized an old friend. This was Orchelimum agile, the Agile Meadow Katydid, an animal I had seen back in 2012 in central Florida. One of the most aptly named insects in my opinion, this is one of the most hyperactive species I have ever had the opportunity to encounter.

Range maps at Singing Insects of North America showed Ohio as being way far out of range for agile, but coincidentally I came across a very recent blog post that details their movements into southern Ohio. So turns out I was not the first one to see agile in Ohio, but this lithe creature was a significant record in any case.

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Orchelimum agile at Archbold Biological Station in FL in 2012.

The Woodland Katydid

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Conocephalus nemoralis, the woodland meadow katydid (Starkville, MS). 

A few weeks ago I journeyed to Starkville, Mississippi, from Ithaca, New York with Jason Dombroskie of the CUIC. The purpose of our visit was, for Jason, to gather tortricid data from the Mississippi Entomological Museum at Mississippi State University; for me, it was a chance to chat about potential research projects with JoVonn Hill, an orthopterist based in Mississippi. Of course, being entomologists, we made time to collect along the way. While Jason set light traps and carefully pinned the moths harvested from said traps, I listened for unfamiliar songs and tracked down their creators. The trip yielded many orthopteran species I had only encountered once or twice before, as well as several species that I had never seen at all. One such species was Conocephalus nemoralis, the woodland meadow katydid. This was a species I was hoping to find, and find it I did; in fact I encountered them in almost every area we stopped to collect.

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Conocephalus nemoralis from Hoosier National Forest in Indiana. 

My first encounter with this pretty animal came in southern Indiana, in the Clover Lick Barrens of Hoosier National Forest. We arrived at dusk and hurried to set out light traps. Among the hundreds of singing insects, one call stood out. It sounded very much like the call of my shieldbacks that I had reared up earlier in the year (incidentally, the female and one male are still hanging in there), and I immediately thought that must be what was calling. Once I got around to tracking the song, I quickly found the singer and knew immediately what it was. There was no mistaking this little dark, wood-brown katydid and its short quiet buzzes. Over the course of the next hour I managed to capture two males and a female. The woodland meadow katydid is notable because it is intermediate in character between the closely related katydid genera Conocephalus and Orchelimum. The robust habitus and ovipositor shape are more typical of Orchelimum, but other characters place it as a Conocephalus.

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A female of Conocephalus nemoralis. Note the short, upcurved ovipositor that is more typical of Orchelimum katydids (Derby, IN). 

I was excited to have found nemoralis and suspected that I wouldn’t run across them again. Given the paucity of photos at BugGuide and other sources, I imagined that it wasn’t an especially common animal. However, this was certainly not the case, as I later picked up singing males at gas stations in Tennessee, university-owned properties in Mississippi, and even a rest stop in southern Pennsylvania on our way back to Ithaca. These varied localities had one thing in common – they were all edge habitats at the periphery of forests, which seems to be the preferred habitat of these little katydids. Most did not survive the trip back but one made it and is housed in my room, calling every day alongside native New York katydids.

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Habitat in Indiana where I found nemoralis – the Clover Lick Barrens. 

Sphagnum bogs, home of weird and wonderful creatures

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The Big Heath in Bass Harbor, MDI, Maine, is a good example of a northern sphagnum bog. Note the ericaceous shrubs in the foreground and the black spruce trees behind them.

Most of us have heard the term bog used colloquially to describe any wet, muddy area, but the true definition of a bog is a wetland that accumulates large deposits of dead plant material known as peat. Often this comes in the form of sphagnum, a genus of about 380 species of mosses that retain water especially well. True bogs are typically acidic and low in nutrients, and in many cases all water in the bog comes from precipitation. Most ordinary plants would die under these conditions, but of course there are quite a few that have adapted to these unfavorable circumstances, creating a distinct community of species that is nonexistent elsewhere. Unique plants, in turn, play host to unique insects.

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McLean Bogs in Tompkins county, NY, is an odd area containing a very small round sphagnum bog surrounded by glacial eskers.

I have had the fortune to be able to visit several sphagnum bogs in Maine and New York, and although each one has its own character, the same familiar plants and animals tend to greet me at every spot. The most obvious player is sphagnum moss, which forms a soft, spongy mat across every bog. When the mat is pressed, it gives up its water like a giant sponge, often evicting many small insects from their hideouts as they swim to safety. This is the primary way I find the dominant orthopteran inhabitant of eastern U.S. bogs, Neonemobius palustris. This tiny ground cricket lives exclusively in these habitats, and were it not for its song one would be hard pressed to detect its presence. Their tie to the sphagnum is quite obvious at the bog’s edge; there one can discern that where the sphagnum ends, the singing ends as well.

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A female nymph of the sphagnum ground cricket, Neonemobius palustris (McLean, NY).

Before I visited bogs to look for insects, I visited them to see a very special group of plants: the carnivorous plants. These unbelievable organisms that have to be seen to be believed only grow in places extremely deficient in nutrients, such as bogs or rock outcrops. They make up for the lack of soil nutrients by capturing and digesting insects and occasionally other small animals. Carnivory has apparently evolved independently in 9 different groups of plants, and thus there are a wide range of different prey capture strategies. The most well-known is the snap-trap of the venus’s fly trap (Dionaea muscipula), but that species is restricted to bogs in North and South Carolina (it is also widely cultivated in captivity). The types found in most eastern sphagnum bogs are several species of sundews and pitcher plants. Sundews (Drosera), which I surprisingly have no good photos of, consist of flattened leaves with hairs that bear drops of sticky sugary liquid on their tips. These attract insects, which get stuck and are eventually digested by the plant. Pitcher plants (Sarracenia), in contrast, are literally pitchers of liquid containing nectar bribes that lure insects to the edge, where they fall in and cannot escape. I am always guaranteed to see these fascinating little plants every time I enter a sphagnum bog.

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Northern pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea (McLean, NY).

Although carnivorous plants may seem to have turned the tables on insects, some insects have turned the tables again and evolved to take advantage of their captors. Wyeomyia smithii mosquitoes only breed in the pitchers of pitcher plants; moths of the genus Exyra feed exclusively on pitcher plants; Buckleria parvulus plume moth caterpillars feed on the sticky glue of sundews; Camponotus schmitzi ants are known as diving ants because of their habit of diving into the pitchers of pitcher plants and retrieving the plant’s food items. Unfortunately I have never had the good luck to encounter any of these tricky little animals at work.

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Lichnanthe vulpina, the bumblebee scarab. A member of the family Glaphyridae (once part of Scarabaeidae), this animal looks uncannily like a bumblebee in flight. Another name for this species is cranberry root grub because the larvae feed on the roots of cranberry plants (Kennebunk, ME).

Sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants are not the only plants present in bogs. Many specialized sedges and orchids live in bogs, as well as plants of the family Ericaceae (which includes such things as heaths, heathers, blueberries, and cranberries). Heaths are often host to some very strange insects, such as Lichnanthe vulpina, a bee-mimicking scarab beetle. Most trees cannot survive in bogs, but black spruce (Picea mariana) and tamarack (Larix laricina) often invade the open bogs, albeit in stunted form.

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Tamarack (Larix laricina), a common bog tree. This is a highly unusual tree that is a deciduous conifer – that is, it has all the characteristics of typical evergreens such as pines and spruces, except it loses its needles every fall! This photo was taken in October (Saco, ME).

If you have never experienced a bog before, do yourself a favor and visit one. Many bogs have boardwalks through them to facilitate public encounters, since walking directly on the sphagnum tramples and destroys the rare plants there. There are tons of awesome organisms in bogs, and I have only attempted to depict a few of the most interesting ones that I have seen here.

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The Saco Heath, a large bog open to the public with a long boardwalk. The white tufts are the seed heads of cotton grass (Eriophorum), a characteristic sedge in bogs.

A katydid’s nightmare

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Something is clearly wrong with this katydid – note the discoloration and the head hanging by a thread.

One day in late July of this year, I was out on an early morning walk on the trails around Cornell’s campus. Heading down some stairs down to the Fall Creek gorge, I noticed a dead katydid on the ground and picked it up. I recognized it as a male Scudderia fasciata, the treetop bush katydid. This species lives high in conifers, and has dark striped wings to match its habitat. I usually find them either at lights or by accident, so I figured I’d keep this one as a specimen. I noticed that its head was hanging by a thread and that the entire head and thorax seemed to be empty. In stark contrast to this, the katydid’s abdomen was brown and bulging. Perhaps it was rotting? As I peered at it closer, a scene straight out of the movie Alien – four huge wriggling fly maggots burst forth from the katydid’s carcass! I am not one to be creeped out by insects, but this was such a shock that I dropped the whole mess! This was an especially creepy scene given that katydids are some of my favorite insects. After a moment I realized that this was a golden opportunity to see what fly species would be parasitizing bush katydids in upstate New York. I gathered up the fly larvae and dead katydid and placed them in a container with some soil.

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This is what keeps katydids up at night – a sarcophagid fly parasitoid of Scudderia fasciata, as yet unidentified.

In a few hours, the maggots had dug into the soil and pupated. I had no idea how long they would remain there, but less than two weeks later I looked at the container and four small flies were flitting around. They were sarcophagids, a group known as “flesh flies” that are known for feeding on dead bodies but which also contains species that parasitize other invertebrates. They are quite difficult to identify from photos alone, but I kept the specimens and hopefully I will be able to pin an ID on them some day.

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A healthy male Scudderia fasciata, found nearby several days later (Ithaca, NY).