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A new voice in the chorus

A pair of Jumping Bush Crickets (Orocharis saltator) from Massachusetts. Females have long, needle-like ovipositors, which they use to lay eggs deep into the stems of plants.

A pair of Jumping Bush Crickets (Orocharis saltator) from Massachusetts. Females have long, needle-like ovipositors, which they use to lay eggs deep into the stems of plants.

Yesterday evening, right before the weather turned nasty, as I stood on the deck over my garden I suddenly caught a sound wave, one that I immediately recognized but had never before heard around my house. I ran to grab my recorder and was able to capture a snippet of the call. Seeing me pointing my microphone towards his house, a neighbor approached me warily, inquiring if I am trying to find the property line. I explained what I was doing and he left, satisfied in his knowledge that I am just feeble minded, and not trying to sue him for his land.

The call was that of the Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator), a species I first encountered a couple of years ago in Cambridge, MA. Since then I have been looking for other places where this pretty animal might live, but never expected to find it in my backyard. It is a species that belongs to the chiefly tropical subfamily Eneopterinae, and makes a fine addition to the chorus of crickets around my house, which now includes 12 species:

Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator)
Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)
Say’s trig (Anaxipha exigua)
Carolina ground cricket (Eunemobius carolinus)
Allard’s ground cricket (Allonemobius allardi)
Striped ground cricket (Allonemobius fasciatus)
Two-spotted tree cricket (Neoxabea bipunctata)
Snowy tree cricket (Oecanthus fultoni)
Spring field cricket (Gryllus veletis)
Fall field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus)
House cricket (Acheta domesticus) (introduced)
Eastern ant cricket (Myrmecophilus pergandei)

Sonogram of the Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator); click here to listen to the recording.

Sonogram of the Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator); click here to listen to the recording.

A male Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator).

A male Jumping Bush Cricket (Orocharis saltator).

 

On the benefits of random collecting

A female Cederberg cave katydid (Cedarbergeniana imperfecta) preening her antennae.

A female Cederberg cave katydid (Cedarbergeniana imperfecta) preening her antennae.

In 1911, after a short and apparently unsatisfying stint as a lawyer, Keppel H. Barnard left his native London and joined the staff of the South African Museum in Cape Town. First a mere lab assistant, he quickly ascended the ranks, in 10 short years reaching the position of the museum’s director, which he held until his retirement in 1956. Barnard’s life was dominated by two seemingly opposite passions. One was the study of aquatic animals, and during his productive career he laid the foundations of modern African ichthyology, carcinology, and malacology. But I probably would have never even heard of him if it wasn’t for his second obsession – mountaineering. In September 1925 his insatiable desire to scramble pointy rocks lead him to the ragged peaks and caves of Cederberg, a mountain range of red, Ordovician sandstone, about 150 km North of Cape Town. Once there, his zoological predilection kicked back in, and made him look into every nook and cranny to collect specimens for the museum. In narrow caves known affectionately as the Wolfberg Cracks he encountered large, spider-like insects, with spindly, striped legs and 6-inch antennae. But neither he nor anyone else knew what to make of them, other than that they might have been katydids.

Sandstone spires above Wolfberg Cracks, one of the few caves where cave katydids can be found.

Sandstone spires above Wolfberg Cracks, one of the few caves where cave katydids can be found.

For 70 years those specimens had sat in a dark corner of the museum until, after a string of my increasingly incessant letters, they were packed with a bunch of other unidentified material and shipped to me, then a young student of entomology working on a revision of southern African katydids. One glimpse at the specimens and I knew that they were special. Not surprisingly they were new to science — an always welcome but not unexpected occurrence. But the fact that the insects had been collected from caves was intriguing — no other katydid had ever been found in such a habitat. Could those be the first such animals? Their morphology certainly seemed to suggest it. Extremely long appendages and pale coloration are the hallmarks of troglophiles, organisms living in caves, and the new katydids fit this pattern.

Resembling large spiders, cave katydids exhibit typical morphological characteristics of cave animals, which relay mostly on tactile information when moving around.

Resembling large spiders, cave katydids exhibit typical morphological characteristics of cave animals, which relay mostly on tactile information when moving around.

To add to the mystery, all specimens were immature, and I could only speculate about what the adults might have looked like. I published a formal description of the new katydids, giving them the scientific name Cedarbergeniana imperfecta (immature katydid from Cederberg; now I wish I had named them after Barnard), but ever since I have been dying to find out more about their behavior and biology. Do they really live in caves? What do they eat? Can they sing? Are they solitary, like virtually all katydids, or do they live in groups, like cave crickets?

Cave katydids are gregarious, found in multi-aged groups of 20-30 individuals.

Cave katydids are gregarious, found in multi-aged groups of 20-30 individuals.

In the years that followed I have been able to visit Cederberg many times, and collected a lot of data about their biology. Yes, they truly are cave dwelling katydids, the world’s only, and yes, they are highly gregarious, often found in clusters of 20-30 individuals of various ages. The caves they prefer are cold, maintaining the chilly temperature of 12°C (54°F) throughout the year. Their habitat cannot be occupied by bats or hyraxes, which probably quickly do away with the tasty, surprisingly very slow-moving insects, thus limiting the number of available caves (interestingly, when exposed to higher temperatures they become phenomenal jumpers). I know now what sound they produce – a short, ultrasonic click. All their close relatives (katydids of the tribe Aprosphylini) produce long, continuous trills, but such a call would probably cause a lot of reverberation in a cave environment and thus make it difficult for a female to locate a singing male. I also know what they eat, a mystery that had bugged me after seeing the nearly sterile interior of the cave – they leave the cave at night to forage on grasses and other plants growing at the mouth of the cave. This behavior makes them, in technical parlance, trogloxenes.

Last month, during a short visit to Cederberg with my friend Jen Guyton, I approached Wolfberg Cracks with some trepidation. For one, it is a tricky climb and, having witnessed another friend tumble down the mountain and break several bones while looking for cave katydids, I did not want the same thing to happen to me or, especially, Jen – it would be hard to explain why young females who accompany me to the cave always end up falling off cliffs. But I was also worrying about the katydids themselves. Corey Bazelet, my collaborator at the University in Stellenbosch, and I have recently completed the IUCN Red List assessment of South African katydids, and the Cederberg cave katydid unquestionably ranks as Endangered. It is known only from a tiny handful of locations in the Cederberg Mountains, a possible relic of colder climates of the Pleistocene, having found shelter in the cooler environment of the caves. With, what now seems to be unavoidable global climate change, and an already well-documented warming up of southern Africa, I fear that its days are numbered. But, luckily, today cave katydids are doing very well. Jen and I found them to be thriving; I even found an additional, small cave where I had not seen them before.

A male nymph and adult female of Cederberg katydid (Cedarbergeniana imperfecta).

A male nymph and adult female of Cederberg katydid (Cedarbergeniana imperfecta).

We climbed back down safely and stopped at a little gift shop at Sandrifft, the highest vineyard in Africa and the legal owner of the Wolfberg caves, and picked up a few bottles to toast to the survival of K.H. Barnard’s incidental discovery, the result of his random collecting that lead to the description of the world’s only cave-dwelling katydid and now, with its proclamation as an Endangered species, its increased protection. If the chances of the katydids’ survival are in any way related to the amount of toasting, they will be just fine.

The contrasting coloration of the cave katydids allows them blend in among the colorful rocks of Cederberg during their rare forays outside the caves.

The contrasting coloration of the cave katydids allows them blend in among the colorful rocks of Cederberg during their rare forays outside the caves.

A cave katydid cleaning his foot; their tarsi are incredibly sticky, allowing these insects to walk upside down on the smooth celing of their cave.

A cave katydid cleaning his foot; their tarsi are incredibly sticky, allowing these insects to walk upside down on the smooth celing of their cave.

Bog killers

Sphagnum ground cricket (Neonemobius palustris) from Ponakpoag Bog, MA.

Sphagnum ground cricket (Neonemobius palustris) from Ponakpoag Bog, MA.

The one thing about plants that we take for granted is that they cannot really hurt you. Sure, some are full of toxic compounds and can be deadly poisonous if ingested. Others are covered with nasty spines or irritating hairs, and a tree  can fall on your head during windy weather and crack your skull. But we feel pretty secure in the fact that no plant can hunt and eat you. Things would be very different, however, if we weren’t some of the largest animals on the planet.

The call of the Sphagnum ground cricket is a soft, high-pitched trill, which is easy to miss unless your are looking for it. Click here to hear the recording of the call at the natural speed, followed by a fragment slowed down 5 times.

The call of the Sphagnum ground cricket is a soft, high-pitched trill, which is easy to miss unless your are looking for it. Click here to hear the recording of the call at the natural speed, followed by a fragment slowed down 5 times.

I was having these thoughts last Sunday when I went looking for another singing insect, the minute Sphagnum ground cricket (Neonemobius palustris), one of a few species of New England acoustic orthopterans that I had never managed to get a recording of. I decided to try looking for it at Ponkapoag Bog in the Blue Hills Reservation, about 10 miles S of Boston. Almost immediately after stepping on the wooden planks that run through the soggy Sphagnum bog I started hearing the characteristic, high-pitched tinkling of those small crickets. But it took me a while to find one, and I only managed to do so after a considerable amount of crawling on all fours, waving a shotgun microphone to pinpoint the source of the sound. Eventually I located one individual in a sunny spot, deep in a clump of red and green moss. As I was recording his song, I also marveled at the idyllic setting of this species’ home. “What a great place to live for an insect”, I thought, “no predaceous ground beetles, no centipedes, water and food plentiful.” But then I heard behind me somebody say “Look honey, bladderworts! They catch and eat aquatic insects.” Right, I forgot about the killer plants.

Looking like a hungry snake, the gaping mouth of the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) invites unsuspecting insects to their death.

Looking like a hungry snake, the gaping mouth of the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) invites unsuspecting insects to their death.

Bogs are strange communities, not quite aquatic, not quite solid ground. The constant presence of low levels of water leaches nutrients from the soil, making the habitat extremely poor in minerals, particularly nitrogen. Some plants can fix atmospheric nitrogen thanks to a symbiotic relationship with cyanobacteria in their root system, but most need to find another way, and some do so by becoming carnivorous. I looked around and just a couple of feet from where my cricket was happily singing sat a gaping mouth of the pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea). The plant was half hidden in the moss, the lower lip of its pitcher conveniently at  ground level, its entrance inviting to any cricket looking for a hiding place or something to eat. The bottom of the pitcher was dark with half-digested bodies of insects, a few still floating on the surface. The lip’s surface was covered with backward-pointing spines, making it easy for an insect to walk in, but virtually impossible to leave. It was as if you walked into your local grocery store, only to realize that you are in the Little Shop of Horrors.

Unlucky insects and arachnids being digested in the pitcher.

Unlucky insects and arachnids being digested in the pitcher.

In addition to bladderworts and pitcher plants, Ponkapoag Bog is a great place to see honeydews (Drosera rotundifolia). Unlike pitcher plants, which lure and drown insects, sundews actively grab them with their sticky, glandular tentacles that cover their modified leaves. They mostly catch small midges and gnats, but I saw one plant successfully capture a pretty big damselfly using two of its leaves at once. Of course the insect must first touch the plant, but once it does, it is pretty much doomed as the leaves curl and immediately start digesting the prey. I often complain that our huge body size prevents humans from appreciating most of the richness and beauty of the natural world, but carnivorous plants are another reason to think that maybe it is not such a bad thing after all.

Purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) from Ponkapoag Bog, MA. The color of the plant is an indirect indication of the availability of nitrogen – the greener the plant, the more nitrogen is present in its environment. A recent study demonstrated that pollution by synthetic fertilizer makes carnivorous plants less interested in insects and more reliant on nitrogen dissolved in the water.

Purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) from Ponkapoag Bog, MA. The color of the plant is an indirect indication of the availability of nitrogen – the greener the plant, the more nitrogen is present in its environment. A recent study demonstrates that pollution by synthetic fertilizer makes carnivorous plants less interested in insects and more reliant on nitrogen dissolved in the water.

The pitchers of S. purpurea are its modified leaves, not flowers. Its true and remarkably beautiful flowers appear in the late spring and, unlike the pitchers, are insect-friendly.

The pitchers of S. purpurea are its modified leaves, not flowers. Its true and remarkably beautiful flowers appear in the late spring and, unlike the pitchers, are insect-friendly.

Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) from Ponkapoag Bog, MA with two half-digested midges.

Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) from Ponkapoag Bog, MA with two half-digested midges.

Even an insect as big as a damselfly can fall victim to a sundew.

Even an insect as big as a damselfly can fall victim to a sundew.

The chorus grows

A singing male Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)

A singing male Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)

On this sunny Columbus Day I stayed at home, which allowed me to discover another beautiful musician in my garden’s chorus, the Handsome Trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus) (also known as the Red-headed Bush Cricket). I already wrote about this species, but I never suspected that I would find one of my favorite North American orthopterans in my very own garden. Around noon I noticed a cricket song that I had never heard around my house before. Armed with a directional microphone and a net I followed the twitter, and found him singing from the upper surface of a large leaf, about 6 feet above the ground. This finding brings the number of crickets found around my house to 11:

Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)
Say’s trig (Anaxipha exigua)
Carolina ground cricket (Eunemobius carolinus)
Allard’s ground cricket (Allonemobius allardi)
Striped ground cricket (Allonemobius fasciatus)
Two-spotted tree cricket (Neoxabea bipunctata)
Snowy tree cricket (Oecanthus fultoni)
Spring field cricket (Gryllus veletis)
Fall field cricket (Gryllus pennsylvanicus)
Eastern ant cricket (Myrmecophilus pergandei)
House cricket (Acheta domesticus) (introduced)

Sonogram of the Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus); click here to listen to the recording.

Sonogram of the Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus); click here to listen to the recording.

A male Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)

A male Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus)

Music in my head

Male Carolina ground crickets (Eunemobius carolinus) are the hardiest of all my garden's musicians, and may continue to woo females with their song well into late November.

Male Carolina ground crickets (Eunemobius carolinus) are the hardiest of all my garden’s musicians, and may continue to woo females with their song well into late November.

I have always wanted to be a musician. Not that I have any particular musical talents (and never learned to read music), but my fascination with sound was definitely one of the reasons for becoming an expert in the taxonomy of orthopteroid insects, nature’s preeminent musicians. Few things are more pleasant to me than sitting on the deck of our house near Boston on a warm summer evening – a high frequency sound recorder in one hand, a glass of gin & tonic in the other – and getting lost in the hypnotic chorus of about a dozen species of katydids and crickets that share our garden with us. (The best part of this activity is that I can call it “data collecting”.) Now that the summer is sadly over, all I have is the memory of beautiful garden soundscapes, and a bunch of recordings. There are still some strugglers out there – just the other night I found a Sword-bearing conehead (Neoconcephalus ensiger) singing on the lawn in front of our house – but let’s face it, it will be very quiet very soon. And thus I thought that this might be a good time to put all of this year’s recordings together into one composite soundscape, and relive the aural painting that I am privileged to experience every summer.

Some of the cricket species I recorded in or near my garden. The number under each name represents the sequence of joining the musical performance in the composite recording below.

Some of the cricket species I recorded in or near my garden. The number under each name represents the sequence of joining the musical performance in the composite recording below.

Some species, such as the ubiquitous Carolina ground cricket (Eunemobius carolinus), produce calls that are not especially musical, but rather reminiscent of a buzz made by overtaxed power lines. Others, like the Treetop bush katydid (Scudderia fasciata), make irregular, high frequency clicks that show no discernible rhythm. But, as I listen to the evening’s ambience, a repeating pattern begins to emerge. Snowy tree crickets (Oecanthus fultoni) stridulate in a way that is both highly rhythmical and melodious (Joni Mitchell fans will recognize this species in the song “Night Ride Home”), while the frequency-modulated chirps of Field crickets (Gryllus veletis) add a nice, if somewhat irregular, punctuation.

Some of katydid neighbors. Just like with the crickets, the number under each name represents the sequence of joining the musical performance in the composite recording below.

Some of katydid neighbors. Just like with the crickets, the number under each name represents the sequence of joining the musical performance in the composite recording below.

As the night falls more and more species join in. A Two-spotted tree cricket (Neoxabea bipunctata) utters short, piercing cries, usually in sonic pairs, sometimes in series of threes or fours. And although I cannot hear it, I know that the Drumming katydid (Meconema thalassinum), a relatively recent arrival to North America from Europe, is banging one of his hind legs against the bark of the large oak in our garden, creating a percussive line for the rest of the ensemble. Why this species has lost its ability to stridulate and instead evolved a drumming behavior is a mystery, but it is likely that the shift was driven by either a predator or a parasite the had used its (originally) airborne calls to find the singing males and do unspeakable things to them.

And finally, later at night (and later in the season), the True katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia) adds its voice to the chorus. This spectacular insect, whose song is recognizable to anybody who’s ever lived on the East Coast of the US, is the northernmost member of a largely tropical lineage of katydids, the Pseudophyllinae. Despite them being very large and remarkably common insects (you can hear true katydids in the middle of Boston and other large cities), few people ever get the chance to see one – they spend their entire lives high in the canopies of the tallest trees, and are encountered only occasionally, for example when a gust of strong wind knocks them down onto the ground. I have lived surrounded by True katydids for the last 20 years, but can count all my encounters with them on the fingers of one hand. Incidentally, if you ever wondered where the word “katydid” came from, listen to this species’ call. The more northern populations (and thus the ones that the Pilgrims first heard, and apparently were afraid of) have a call consisting of 2-4 syllables that can be interpreted as the sound “ka-ty-did” (or, as the legend goes, “katy-she-did-it”, thus betraying the identity of some murderous lady).

My foot has been tapping since the tree crickets started calling, and now, with the strong beat of the True katydid, I can’t help but imagine melodic lines filling the spaces in between the pulses. I sip my drink and let the mind wander.

A sonogram of a composite recording of most of the orthopteran species singing in my garden. On a good night I can hear them all, but here I decided to add them one by one to the recording to make each species' song stand out. Click here to listen to this soundscape. Please note that some species (esp. Scudderia and Microcentrum) may not be audible to a certain group of listeners (I am talking about you, men 35 or older; I count myself incredibly lucky for still being able to hear all my local species – but who knows for how long). It will help if you listen to this recording through headphones or external speakers; most built-in computer speakers may not be able to reproduce all frequencies (esp. the low frequency drumming of Meconema). (If you would like to see an animated sonogram with species names appearing as they join the chorus, click here; it is a large file, suitable only for a fast connection.)

A sonogram of a composite recording of most of the orthopteran species singing in my garden. On a good night I can hear them all, but here I decided to add them one by one to the recording to make each species’ song stand out. Click here to listen to this soundscape. Please note that some species (esp. Scudderia and Microcentrum) may not be audible to a certain group of listeners (I am talking about you, men 35 or older; I count myself incredibly lucky for still being able to hear all my local species – but who knows for how long). It will help if you listen to this recording through headphones or external speakers; most built-in computer speakers may not be able to reproduce all frequencies (esp. the low frequency drumming of Meconema). (If you would like to see an animated sonogram with species names appearing as they join the chorus, click here; it is a large file, suitable only for fast internet connections.)

A song of ancient Earth

The Greater Grig (Cyphoderris monstrosa) from the Pacific Northwest.

The Greater Grig (Cyphoderris monstrosa) from the Pacific Northwest.

Those who have been reading this blog with some regularity may have noticed that I find virtually all organisms equally fascinating. But some are more equal than others, and few animals and plants excite me more than phylogenetic relics. These are the last remaining members of lineages that were once dominant, or at least species-rich, but are now represented by only one or a few surviving species, species that still carry the old (plesiomorphic) versions of many of the organism’s characters. Such relics are often relegated to living in places that are inhospitable to their evolutionarily younger relatives, but are able to thrive thanks to their ability to handle extreme conditions (albeit this ability is often a relatively recent development). And though I am now in Gorongosa National Park, a place bursting with all kinds of fantastic African wildlife, before I resume my Mozambique Diary I first must recount an interesting encounter with a Mesozoic singing relic that I had only a few days before leaving for Africa.

Tall Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) are the preferred singing perches of C. monstrosa.

Tall Mountain hemlocks (Tsuga mertensiana) are the preferred singing perches of C. monstrosa.

Nobody really knows who the first animal singers were. Chances are that the first acoustically active animals were aquatic — grunting placoderm fish, stridulating trilobites, or perhaps pincer-snapping eurypterid sea scorpions — they all have modern equivalents that produce sound underwater. But on land the first organisms that broke the silence were almost certainly small arthropods, whose bodies, encased in rigid plates and tubes of the chitinous exoskeleton, were perfectly suited to become percussive instruments. It is quite likely that a defensive sound production was the initial reason for the evolution of animals’ acoustic behavior, but it did not take long for them to start using sound as an effective attractant during courtship. The unquestionable leading voices of invertebrate love chorus are, and probably have always been, the orthopteroid insects – katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers. Their Permian and Triassic ancestors already had quite sophisticated sound-producing organs on their wings and must have dominated the soundscapes of the Pangean supercontinent. Wings of these fossil insects are often preserved with exquisite detail, allowing us to speculate about the kind of sound they made, and who their modern successors might be. In fact, thanks to a recent study by Jun-Jie Gu you can now listen to a Jurasic song of a katydid ancestor. A handful of direct descendants of these ancient singing insects, members of the largely extinct Mesozoic family Prophalangopsidae, or grigs, are still alive today, and their songs are quite similar to those of their long-gone forbearers.

Male Greater grigs usually call while sitting upside down directly on the tree trunk, which makes it easier for females to find them. Males are highly territorial and will defend their singing perches from other males.

Male Greater grigs usually call while sitting upside down directly on a tree trunk, which makes it easier for females to find them. They are highly territorial and will defend their singing perches from other males.

A few species of grigs can be found in cold, mountainous habitats of eastern Siberia and central China, and three additional ones live in the mountains of western US and Canada. Virtually nothing is known about the Asian species, but the North American ones have inspired research for decades, and we now know more about their behavior than about that of almost any other singing insect on the planet. And what fascinating behavior it is — these innocent-looking insects combine the love of freezing weather and cannibalism with a lust for virgins.

Last week I was in Seattle and decided to try my luck at finding the largest North American grig, Cyphoderris monstrosa. I had precious little time to do this and thus my only option was to look for it in the Cascades, about 70 miles E of the city. Alas, all I had to go by was a single record from 1909, with a vague description of the locality called Stampede, and I figured that it had to be the same place as what is now known as the Stampede Pass, an area covered with thick forest of hemlocks and pines on steep mountain slopes – just the right place for grigs. I got there in the early afternoon but the place did not look particularly inviting – every single road sign was pockmarked with shotgun blasts, what I took for colorful flowers on a meadow turned out to be piles of shotgun and handgun shells, and nearly all roads leading to what looked like a promising grig habitat had a “No trespassing” sign. Hoping that I will make a difficult target in a rainy night I decided to wait until dark and then search for the insects.

The Sagebrush grig (Cyphoderris strepitans) from Wyoming is found low to the ground in sagebrush meadows of the Rockies.

A closely related species, the Sagebrush grig (Cyphoderris strepitans) from Wyoming, is found low to the ground in sagebrush meadows of the Rockies.

The first grig started calling around 10 pm. His call was a high-pitched but rather pleasant warble, somewhat akin to the ring of an old-fashioned telephone. It was coming from a tall hemlock, and I had no other option but to start climbing. Thankfully, grigs are not particularly skittish, and once I located the male I had no troubles getting close to him. I recorded his call and then quickly grabbed him.

In the majority of the animal kingdom the male provides little more than reproductive cells that inseminate the female’s eggs, and hence the profusion of elaborate displays of masculine virility designed to convince the female of the male’s good genes, rather than his suitability for lasting partnership or shared investment in offspring. Usually, all the gullible female gets is a brief, entertaining show and the knowledge that she will never see the guy again. Not so in grigs. The females in these animals want to take home more than just a memory of a good time; they also demand a decent meal, something that will significantly contribute to the production of eggs. Because grigs literally live in their food, a male offering a piece of hemlock or pine, no matter how fresh and tasty, would certainly be given a cold shoulder. Having nothing else to give, the males are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice — they offer females parts of their own bodies to dine on. Like most insects, male grigs have two pairs of wings. The first pair, slightly hardened and modified into sound organs, is used to produce a song that guides the female to him. The second pair, however, is somewhat dispensable, and it has evolved into a pair of big, fleshy organs filled with the male’s blood (hemolymph), and this is what the female grigs lust for.

During mating the male locks the female in place on his back with an insidious trap on the tip of his abdomen. Female grigs are completely wingless.

During mating the male grig locks the female in place on his back with an insidious trap on the tip of his abdomen. Female grigs are completely wingless.

Once a female locates an interested male, she climbs on his back and immediately starts devouring his wings. While she is busy with her cannibalistic hors d’oeuvre, the male attaches his reproductive organs to those of the female and transfers a packet of sperm. He also leaves with the female a package of nutritious carbohydrates and proteins, known as the spermatophylax, which the female consumes after the mating. It seems that the role of these nuptial gifts is to ensure that the sperm he delivered has enough time to get where it needs to, and it also precludes her from mating again with another male, at least until she is done eating. More importantly, his edible wings and the spermatophylax provide the female with nutrients that she will be able to use to produce her eggs, making the male an active and invested participant in parenthood.

This singing Sagebrush grig male has already lost his virgin hind wings, and must count on the females' inability to distinguish his call from that of a virgin male.

This singing Sagebrush grig male has already lost his virgin hind wings and must count on the females’ inability to distinguish his call from that of a virgin male.

Although both the male and the female will soon be ready to mate again, the male now has a problem — he is not ready to retire quite yet, but he no longer has the tasty wings that attracted his first partner. Luckily for him females are not very good at distinguishing the song of an unmated male from that of one who has already lost his virgin wings (but there is evidence that the females preferentially mate with virgins). And once she climbs the back of a male and realizes that he no longer carries the tasty snack, it is too late. Male grigs have evolved an ingenious, if somewhat insidious, device on their abdomen, appropriately called the gin trap, which effectively locks the female in place and gives him extra time to transfer his reproductive cells. It takes a female a considerable amount of effort to disengage from the male, and there is plenty of time for him to pass on his genes.

I stayed in the forest until midnight, tracking, recording, and photographing grigs. By that time the temperature had dropped significantly and a freezing rain was pouring, which made for very compelling arguments to get back into the car and drive back to Seattle. But I was giddy with excitement of having found the grigs and, an unexpected bonus, not having been shot at.

A portrait of the Greater grig (Cyphoderris monstrosa).

A portrait of the Greater grig (Cyphoderris monstrosa).

Two males of C. monstrosa calling. Click here to listen to the recording.

Two males of C. monstrosa calling. Click here to listen to the recording.

Say’s trig

A male and a female of the Say's trig (Anaxipha exigua) from Woburn, MA.

A male and a female of the Say’s trig (Anaxipha exigua) from Woburn, MA.

Yesterday my wife called me – “You need to come to Mahoney’s [our local garden center], there are tree crickets on every Holly bush.” I promptly grabbed a few containers and was there in a matter of minutes. And indeed, the place was resonating with soft, bell-like calls of dozens of crickets, but I did not recognize the species. I spent about 20 minutes looking for them, eliciting confused stares from the staff and customers, but could not locate any singing males. In desperation I shook a few bushes, and eventually a female tree cricket (Oecanthus) flew out of one. But I was not convinced that this was the genus that was singing there; the call was just not very tree cricket-like.

I returned the following evening, armed with a shotgun microphone and headphones, intent on locating the callers. The staff of the center was apparently on the verge of kicking me out after watching me waving the long microphone around the shrubs like some deranged Dumbledore wannabe, but Kristin managed to placate them and so they left me alone. But even with the ability to pinpoint each caller, finding the crickets was very tricky, and it took me almost an hour to finally catch a couple.

The call of the Say's trig (click here to hear it).

The call of the Say’s trig (click here to hear it)

The mystery insects turned out to be not tree crickets but much smaller, and orders of magnitude more agile, Say’s trigs (Anaxipha exigua), named after Thomas Say, the prolific 19th century entomologist and malacologist, and the discoverer of this species. I had never seen a Say’s trig before, and was happy to add both the recording and photos to my database of local orthopterans. Anaxipha is a large genus of the cricket subfamily Trigonidiinae, with 135 described and a bunch of yet undescribed species, found mostly in the tropical and subtropical parts of the globe. The Say’s trig, along with the Handsome trig (Phyllopalpus pulchellus), is one of the few species of the group reaching as far North as Massachusetts. The call of the Say’s trig is an almost pure tune trill, with the loud portion at exactly 7 kHz, and a softer harmonic at 14 kHz (click here to listen to the recording).