Archives

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.)