Leaf-eating leaves

Giant true leaf katydid (Celidophylla albimacula) from Costa Rica is the largest katydid in Central America – an adult female is about the size of the palm of your hand. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm, speedlight Canon 580EXII]

If you ever have a chance to visit a humid, tropical area in South or Central America, make sure to bring a good flashlight or a headlamp with you, because if you go out into the forest at night, you may be rewarded with the discovery of one of the most amazing animals that this part of the world has to offer – the True leaf katydid. Don’t bother looking for them during the day, though – they will be sitting all around you, but you will never find them. They only way to notice them is to look for the movement of their long antennae and legs as they slowly munch on leaves at night.

Peacock katydids (Pterochroza ocellata) take leaf mimicry to the next level, and some individuals have a very convincing “fungal damage” on their wings [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 16-35mm, speedlight Canon 580EX]

True leaf katydids, which belong to a group known as the Pterochrozini, are probably the best mimics of plants among all insects. Their mimicry is by no means restricted to resemblance of plain, green leaves – that would be too easy. No, their bodies are perfect replicas of leaves that have been chewed up, torn, rotten, dried up, partially decayed, or covered by fungi. Some even have fake holes in their wings (fake, because the holes are in fact thin, translucent parts of the wing membrane.) Their mimicry is so exquisite that it once fooled a famous evolutionary biologist into clipping a part of the katydid’s body to prove to me that it was lichens growing on its abdomen. Alas, it wasn’t, and hemolymph was spilled.

Costa Rican Leaf katydid (Mimetica mortuifolia) fakes the appearance of a partially necrotic leaf [Nikon D1, Sigma 180mm, ambient light]

But the best part is that no two individuals are alike, and within a single population you can find individuals whose appearance is so dramatically different that one would feel justified to place them in different species. Not surprisingly, entomologists did – South American Peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) was described under thirteen different names, until a captive breeding program, initiated in 1999 by entomologists Serge Xiberras and Pierre Ducaud, incontrovertibly showed that all of these “species” can appear in the same brood. The situation is not much different for other species in this group of insects: nearly 22% of all species of Pterochrozini were “discovered” and described more than once under different names. Why such polymorphism? There are plenty of plant-mimicking insects, but none show a similar diversity of forms within a single species.

Those leaf katydids that lack brightly colored hind wings, like this Typophyllum erosum from Guyana, often fall to the ground and play dead if approached by a predator. [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm, ambient light]

The answer, of course, has to do with the predators who target these insects. They are primarily monkeys, especially tamarins, who actively search for katydids by unfurling leaves and systematically combing through the vegetation. In some species, katydids can constitute over 80% of their diet. Primates are very smart animals, and even the best mimicry would not help if monkeys were able to form a search image for a particular type of a fake “leaf.” But when every individual in the katydid population looks slightly different, then the task of finding them is much more difficult.

Some true leaf katydids have a secondary line of defense and if attacked by a predator they suddenly reveal brightly colored hind wings, which often seem to form an image of a head of a much larger animal. This type of display is incredibly effective in repelling at least some primates – when the first Peacock katydid I ever saw flashed its wings at me and started jumping in my direction, I stumbled back and fell over. Of course I knew that the animal was harmless, but the hard-wired fearful response to a sudden appearance of a big animal is something that we simply cannot control, and these katydids take full advantage of it.

When threatened, the peacock katydid suddenly opens up its wings and reveals a pattern that looks like the eyes and a beak of a large bird [Canon 7D, Sigma 15mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

14 thoughts on “Leaf-eating leaves

  1. Great stuff, Piotr! I was just lecturing on these katydids this morning – the students are always impressed. The fact that the apparent venation in the wings resembles a leaf more than an insect is amazing. One of my pictures from Costa Rica shows a brown katydid with green eyes, and I have pictures of another species where everything is green except the cerci. I always find these little quirks some of the best evidence for evolution.

    • They really are unbelievable. I am most amazed by those individuals that have fake mold on their wings. I also recently found a new species of a pterochrozine that mimics white and black lichens, it is simply unreal.

  2. Hi Piotr,

    About once a week I reblog a post from another site on my blog to introduce other writers and photographers to my readers. I also add a link to the blog under the heading “Other great nature blogs”. All of your material is tremendous…if you have no objection, I would like to reblog “Leaf-eating leaves”.

    Best regards,
    Ernie Cooper
    http://www.macrocritters.wordpress.com

  3. These are AMAZING photos and amazing critters. However, I fear you made a mistake on photo #4 and just have the shot of dead leaves with no katydid! (Ha)

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  8. Very cool and interesting stuff Piotr! I am living in CR now, and I have seen leaf-mimic butterflies but not these Katydids. I will be looking for them…

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