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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).

 

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.)

Footprint Cave, Belize

Africa in Mesoamerica – a beautiful, little pool on the floor of the upper chamber of the Footprint Cave; it even has an adjoining pool that looks like the Arabian Peninsula.

Africa in Mesoamerica – a beautiful, little pool on the floor of the upper chamber of the Footprint Cave; it even has an adjoining pool that looks like the Arabian Peninsula.

It has been a long while since the last update to this blog, mostly because of my hectic travel schedule (in fact, I am typing this on a shaky train ride). But it has been an interesting time, with lots of great photo ops. Last week I joined Alex Wild, John Abbott and Thomas Shahan in Belize to teach BugShot 2013, an intense course in tropical insect macrophotography. Aside from working with a friendly group of photography masters and enthusiastic students it was my first exposure to some of the most interesting members of the troglobitic Mesoamerican fauna as the workshop was held at the Caves Branch Lodge in central Belize, an area famous for its karst formations, replete with deep limestone caves.

The most famous cave in the area is the Footprint Cave, named after calcified Mayan footprints found in the deeper section of the cave, along with a number of artifacts and skeletal remains. The cave was looted in 1994, and many artifacts and remains are now gone, but you can still see there ancient fire places and shards of Mayan pottery. It was quite an unreal and humbling experience to sit next to a pile of ash that might be over 2,000 years old but still looks warm. The cave itself is stunningly beautiful, cathedral-like, with massive stalactites that shimmer in the light of the headlamp. The shallow Caves Branch River flows through it, and as you walk along its bed large catfish and shrimp follow your every step, looking for small aquatic invertebrates flushed from under the sand.

Female cave cricket Mayagryllus apterus, a species endemic to the Caves Branch system of Belize.

Female cave cricket Mayagryllus apterus, a species endemic to the Caves Branch system of Belize.

As we walked deeper into the cave, leaving behind its large opening and eventually all traces of natural light, we began to discover a multitude of life forms that call this cave their home. Biologists explored Footprint Cave in early 1970’s, but little work has been done since. Many animal species found in the Caves Branch system are likely endemic, and some still await their formal scientific description. I was thrilled to see dozens of long-legged cave crickets Mayagryllus apterus, described only in 1993 from specimens collected in these caves. They were often accompanied by large, equally spindly amblypygids Paraphrynus raptator (Phrynidae), and apparently another, yet undescribed species of the family Charontidae is also present in the cave (and Gil Wizen might have found a third, possibly new amblypygid species). I was hoping to find some dinospiders (Ricinulei) there, alas, no such luck, but flipping rocks on the banks of Caves Branch River revealed a tiny, equally interesting arachnid, a pygmy vinegaroon (Schizomida). The species found in the Footprint Caves is a yet undescribed species of Schizomus, and I would love to be able to collect some specimens and describe them (I need to look into getting some permits for Belize).

A troglobitic isopod crustacean Troglophiloscia sp.; note its lack of pigmentation and eyes, characteristics typical of cave-dwelling organisms.

A troglobitic isopod crustacean Troglophiloscia sp.; note its lack of pigmentation and eyes, characteristics typical of cave-dwelling organisms.

Silk strands on the cave ceiling, produced by the larvae of predaceous fungus gnats (Keroplatidae: ?Macrocera sp.)

Silk strands on the cave ceiling, produced by the larvae of predaceous fungus gnats (Keroplatidae: ?Macrocera sp.)

Yet the most interesting organism in the cave was a fly. When we shone the light at the low celling of the cave we could see curtains of thin, glistening strands of sticky silk produced by larvae of predaceous fungus gnats of the family Keroplatidae; I have not been able to identify the species that lives in the Footprint Cave, but it is possibly a member of the genus Macrocera (Macrocerinae). The strands spun by the larvae are covered with droplets of oxalic acid, which trap and kill tiny flying insects, mayflies mostly, found in the cave. Members of a related subfamily Arachnocampinae found in Australia and New Zealand are famous for their bioluminescence, but the ones found in Belize are of the non-glowing variety. Still, it was a beautiful spectacle to see thousands of hair-like strands undulate gently in the breeze caused by a person walking several meters away.

The strands are covered with droplets of oxalic acid, which trap and kill unlucky insects, such as this mayfly, that brush against them in flight.

The strands are covered with droplets of oxalic acid, which trap and kill unlucky insects, such as this mayfly, that brush against them in flight.

Everybody was sad to leave the cave, which turned out to be the highlight of our photographic workshop, although the fauna of the rainforest that surrounded the lodge where we stayed was equally interesting. Not being able to collect anything was torture for me, but I hope that some day soon I will be able to come back to Caves Branch, this time wearing only my entomologist’s hat.

A new, yet unnamed species of the pygmy vinegaroon (Schizomus sp.) from the Footprint Cave.

A new, yet unnamed species of the pygmy vinegaroon (Schizomus sp.) from the Footprint Cave.

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).