Tree Cricket Clarity

by Carl Strang

A year ago I was struggling with the identification of a group of four meadow-dwelling tree cricket species that reportedly live in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. They have been determined to be close relatives, and two of them had been established as sibling species by Thomas Walker of the University of Florida: the black-horned tree cricket and Forbes’s tree cricket are physically alike, and can be distinguished only by the pulse rate of their songs, which requires the analysis of sound recordings.

Forbes’s and black-horned tree crickets can be very black, as shown in this individual at Pinhook Bog in Indiana.

Forbes’s and black-horned tree crickets can be very black, as shown in this individual at Pinhook Bog in Indiana.

This is a paler representative of the species pair from the Great Marsh, also in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

This is a paler representative of the species pair from the Great Marsh, also in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

One member of this species group, the four-spotted tree cricket, is readily identified. It is pale, and has a distinctive pattern of spots on the basal segments of its antennae.

All four of the spots on the two lowest antenna segments of this four-spotted tree cricket in Fulton County, Indiana, are relatively small and well separated. The outer spot on the basal segment is nearly round.

All four of the spots on the two lowest antenna segments of this four-spotted tree cricket in Fulton County, Indiana, are relatively small and well separated. The outer spot on the basal segment is nearly round.

The final species is the prairie tree cricket. I thought I found this species last year at Mayslake Forest Preserve, again following the long-established focus on antenna spot patterns.

This individual was generally quite pale, and the antenna spots matched reference drawings for the prairie tree cricket.

This individual was generally quite pale, and the antenna spots matched reference drawings for the prairie tree cricket.

When I analyzed my sound recordings of the songs of prairie/black-horned/Forbes’s tree crickets from Mayslake and other DuPage County locations, however, they generally fell out as Forbes’s, though some recordings made at lower temperatures were somewhat ambiguous.

This confusion has been largely resolved, now, thanks to the recently completed Ph.D. thesis work of Laurel Symes. She traveled widely in her study of these species, collecting specimens and analyzing their songs and their genetic relationships. Though her focus was on female response to male songs, and the associated behavioral, ecological and evolutionary implications, the information she collected also is very helpful to my regional survey of singing insects.

Though she doesn’t say this herself in anything I have seen, it seems clear that we need to throw the time-honored focus on antenna spot patterns out the window for three of the four species, though it still holds for the four-spotted tree cricket. Laurel found a geographic separation between black-horned and Forbes’s tree crickets, with a zone of contact that may involve some hybridization. That zone is in Ohio, safely east of the Chicago region. Unless something new emerges in the future, I am following Nancy Collins in calling all our local ones Forbes’s tree crickets as a result of Laurel’s research.

As for the prairie tree cricket, it, too, seems not to be in the region, occurring well south and west of us. I will retain it on the hypothetical list, though, because Laurel’s results were less certain on this point.  In any case, as long as the temperature is warm (at least 68F), the remaining three species can be distinguished from sound recordings, so they need not be captured. All you need is the temperature, the graphs relating pulse rate to temperature, and a pulse rate count from the recording. At the standard temperature of 25C, four-spotted tree crickets have a pulse rate of 40 per second, prairie tree crickets 51 per second, and Forbes’s tree crickets 65 per second. Laurel found that selective pressures on male song and female choice keep these quite separate and narrowly defined, .

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3 Comments

  1. October 16, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Very nicely stated, Carl. May I take snippets from your comments to add to the info page on the forbesi vs nigricornis at BugGuide?

    • natureinquiries said,

      October 17, 2013 at 6:01 am

      Sure!

  2. October 18, 2013 at 6:07 am

    […] confusion about the species identity of meadow-dwelling tree crickets (described in a post earlier this week) prevented my gathering quantitative data last year. I did record numbers this year, though, and […]


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