Why my grasshoppers are cooler than yours.

Hilliard, Florida
Thanksgiving weekend

Nephew Logan and I on the hunt.
Grasshopper view of Nephew Logan on the hunt.

Nephew Logan and I were on the hunt for grasshoppers in a field surrounded by tall and scrawny black pines with an underskirt of saw palmettos.  Nephew Logan (7) is not keen on actually touching any grasshoppers, but was okay holding the plastic water bottle that we shoved them in.  As the grasshoppers popped like popcorn in the plastic bottle, he diligently checked to make sure the lid was tight.  Can’t let a grasshopper escape, it might touch you!

We found at least four different species of grasshoppers.  Nephew Logan was not terribly impressed by that diversity; he wanted to feed the grasshoppers to the chickens (another critter he’s not keen to touch).

The pines of Hilliard
The pines of Hilliard

Grasshoppers aren’t easy to catch.  Mostly because you can’t see them until they fly or hop away.  In the world, you are the eaten or the eater, and grasshoppers are trying not to be the first one.

Grasshoppers, being the clever creatures that they are, have numerous strategies to evade being a snack for a bird or a snake or an Uncle David (Oh, I’ve had grasshopper before).  As a first line of defense, most grasshoppers use crypsis to avoid from being seen (but see my note below about aposematic coloration).  Crypsis is blending into your environment so you can’t be seen.  This is typically via camouflage, but some engage in mimicry to look like something that you don’t want to eat (think about walking sticks).  

 And that’s what this guy does.   

This is the long-headed toothpick grasshopper, Archurum carniatum, and he’s the coolest grasshopper in the whole wide world.  Yup.  Whole wide world.  I challenge you to find a cooler dude.  Look at him! Isn’t it amazing how his tan, slender body  looks just like the dead grass surrounding him?  And look at the picture closely and you can see the black specks on his body that mimic the fungal spots found on the dying grass!  There’s even a black speck on his little eyeball!  What a fantastic adaptation!  This grasshopper doesn’t fly and isn’t a strong jumper.  His entire strategy is, “You can’t see me, you can’t see me.  I’m grass.  See?  No you can’t because I’m grass!”  I only saw our long-headed friend when Nephew Logan’s sweeping foot forced him to jump.

Second place in the coolest grasshopper in the whole-wide-world category goes to the American bird grasshopper, Schistocerca americana.  He relies on camouflage, but when a predator or nephew gets too close he flies 30-foot high into the tall pines.  His strategy of predator avoidance is to fly as far and as high as possible and then once landed, blend into the tree.  These grasshoppers are huge – as long as my finger – and look like small, awkward birds when they fly.  I was only able to catch one though we flushed many.

Later in the day, Brother Cody (17) and I were able to catch another species of bird grasshopper (the obscure bird grasshopper Schistocerca obscura) in a different field as we talked at length about girls (I was hoping he had some advice for me.  He did not.).

Two grasshoppers.  Same field.  Two very different strategies.  Both of which are effective against one Uncle David and one Nephew Logan.

One strategy we didn’t see, though you certainly can in Florida, is what is called ‘aposematic coloration.’  This is the opposite of crypsis.  You want to be seen.  Aposematic coloration involves bright color markings on the body as a warning to say, “Hey!  If you eat me I’ll mess you up!”  Think of the brightly colored coral snakes or poison dart frogs.  These aren’t prima donnas showing off like a peacock.  These are advertisements of death!  Below is a picture of a grasshopper with aposematic coloration.  

Happy hopper hunting!

Okay, this dude is pretty cool too. Not my pic. Original can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/80125969@N00/499771069

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