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BugShot 2014: Sapelo Island, GA

Polyrhachis

Intimate portraits: A queen ant (Polyrhachis armata)

My arrival in Johannesburg has brought a welcome respite from the unbearable winter of New England, and tomorrow I fly to Gorongosa National Park to begin preparations for the official opening of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory on March 27th. Stay tuned for updates and photos!

But there is something else that I am very excited about. Last year I was invited by Alex Wild to teach an insect photography workshop in Belize, the famous BugShot, and this year we are doing it again. This time the workshop will take place on Sapelo Island in Georgia, a place I have never been to but always wanted to visit. Insect life is bound to be spectacular – among other things I expect to find there Brunneria borealis, North America’s largest praying mantis and the world’s only fully parthenogenetic species of these insects. There are webspinners (Embioptera) there, two species of sylvan katydids (Pseudophyllinae), and over 100 species of other orthopterans. This is going to be good.

High-speed macrophotography: Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

High-speed macrophotography: Periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

The workshop will take place on May 22-25 and there are still a few empty slots left. If you want to learn macrophotography, perfect your technique or learn a new one, or simply find out amazing facts about invertebrates, then you should join entomologists and photography experts Alex Wild, John Abbott, and myself on this fun adventure. Visit the BugShot website to find more details.

Wide-angle macro: Sylvan katydid (Celidophylla albiomacula)

Wide-angle macro: Sylvan katydid (Celidophylla albiomacula)

Time lapse macrophotography: A molting katydid (Enyaliopsis petersi)

Time lapse macrophotography: A molting katydid (Enyaliopsis petersi)

Ambient light macrophotography: Atlantic shield-back (Atlanticus testaceus)

Ambient light macrophotography: Atlantic shield-back (Atlanticus testaceus)

Mozambique Diary: A welcoming conehead

A female conehead (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

A conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina) found in a Maputo hotel.

Last night I arrived in Mozambique’s capital Maputo. It was almost midnight when I finally got to my hotel, tired to the point of barely being able to keep my eyes open after more than 20 hours on the plane. But the scent of tropical, humid air was too much for me to resist, and so I put on my headlamp and took a quick stroll around the hotel’s grounds. 

It is the wet season now, and although it did not rain last night the atmosphere felt very humid. But it quickly became apparent that the hotel’s garden had been sprayed with pesticides, as evidenced by almost no insect activity on its beautifully manicured lawns. Across the street from the hotel insects were flying around street lamps and several species of crickets and katydids could be heard in a distance; I even heard the unmistakable call of a pamphagid grasshopper. “Oh, well”, I thought, and at that moment a large katydid flew in from across the fence and landed on the wall in front of me. It was a female conehead katydid (Ruspolia consobrina), a species I knew well from Gorongosa. After a few minutes I found a second individual, trapped in the foyer of the hotel.

Coneheads of the genus Ruspolia are handsome insects, with bodies resembling blades of grass, which makes sense as these are the plants they mostly feed on. Their mandibles are massive and strangely asymmetrical, a feature they share with several other grass-feeding katydid genera. Why is one mandible, usually the left one, much larger than the other is unclear, but it likely helps with stabilizing and cracking seeds of grass that these insects like to eat. And because they feed on such nutritious food, bodies of Ruspolia can get very fat. Combine it with the fact that coneheads can occur in large, almost plague-like numbers in certain parts of Africa, and it is not surprising that they feature prominently in the diet of many African peoples. They high fat content also allows coneheads to survive long periods of low food availability, or even starvation (a topic I covered in an earlier post).

I quickly snapped a few pictures of the katydid, happy to see it minutes after my arrival, and collapsed on the bed on the verge of total exhaustion. Of course I woke up a couple of hours later, unable to fall back asleep because of the time change and so, here I am, writing this blog well before sunrise – a first for me.

Ruspolias

Coneheads (R. consobrina) are highly polymorphic – these three individuals are from the same population in Gorongosa National Park.

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.)