Sound Ideas: Coneheads

by Carl Strang

When I mention the coneheads to people unfamiliar with singing insects, the response almost always is a smile. I have to agree: one reason why the slightly musical conehead is my favorite singing insect (at the moment) is that name. Our coneheads are all katydids in genus Neoconocephalus. I have been fortunate to spend some time in the field with Gideon Ney, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri who is working out of a lab led by Johannes Schul that has done a lot of work with the evolution of that group. Thanks to Gideon I am aware of two species of coneheads that are not supposed to occur as far north as the Chicago region, but turn out to be at least locally common. Today I share recordings of the 6 documented species in the region. Warning: these are not delightfully musical or even (despite the name mentioned above) slightly so. We’ll ease into it with one that is somewhat pleasant to hear: the sword-bearing conehead. Its song:

That recording was made in a grassy upland meadow, typical habitat for the species, but close enough to the edge of the woods that a few common true katydids came through loud and clear. The conehead’s song is the continuous string of rasping ticks or brief buzzes. It has been compared to the sound of a sewing machine or a distant steam locomotive.

The sword-bearing conehead is named for the very long, straight ovipositor on the female.

The sword-bearing conehead is named for the very long, straight ovipositor on the female.

The next species also has a discontinuous song. The slightly musical conehead was given that name because W.T. Davis, who described it, thought it was not very loud (though he later changed his mind on that point).

The rasping sounds are easy for me to hear even with my older ears. This is a wetland species, and the males typically sing in unison.

The coneheads are named for the structure on the tip of the head, especially prominent in the slightly musical conehead.

The coneheads are named for the structure on the tip of the head, especially prominent in the slightly musical conehead.

Another species with an interrupted song is the Nebraska conehead.

The buzzes are not as rough as in the previous species, and will be heard in bushy undergrowth of woodlands, or sometimes bushes out in fields. In the southern part of the Chicago region, where the species is more common, the males sometimes sing in unison as well.

Male coneheads often sing head down. It has been speculated that the cone helps them penetrate the vegetation beneath when they are disturbed and drop to hide. Nebraska coneheads have medium sized, all black cone undersides.

Male coneheads often sing head down. It has been speculated that the cone helps them penetrate the vegetation beneath when they are disturbed and drop to hide. Nebraska coneheads have medium sized, all black cone undersides.

The remaining 3 species all have continuous buzzes. Most common region-wide is the round-tipped conehead, a katydid of meadows and roadsides.

Listen for a crackling sound in this continuous buzz.

Here the cone is short, round, and has a small black area near the tip.

Here the cone is short, round, and has a small black area near the tip.

Next is the marsh conehead, which so far has turned up only in the marshes of the Indiana Dunes parks.

The sound resembles that of the round-tipped, but comes from a wetland rather than dry upland habitat.

The cone of the marsh conehead may be all green as in this female, or show variable darkness of color.

The cone of the marsh conehead may be all green as in this female, or show variable darkness of color.

For the grand finale, here is the very loud song of the robust conehead:

This can be so loud as to be painful to the ears. It carries for long distances, as you may imagine, and is easy to hear from a car at any speed.

The robust conehead’s cone is unmarked and proportionately short. Any conehead species can come in green or brown.

The robust conehead’s cone is unmarked and proportionately short. Any conehead species can come in green or brown.

The robust conehead is most abundant in areas with dry sandy soils. Its habitat range is fairly broad, from open woodlands to prairies to corn fields.

There are at least two other species which are supposed to occur in the region, but which I have not found. Perhaps next winter I will have recordings of false robust coneheads and slender coneheads to share.

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2 Comments

  1. February 10, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    It will be interesting to see if this long, snowy, and very cold winter affects the northward movement of the Round-tipped Coneheads.

    • natureinquiries said,

      February 11, 2014 at 7:13 am

      Deep snow sometimes helps insect survival by insulating eggs or nymphs, but if eggs typically are located high in plant stems the cold might have had an impact. A good thought to keep in mind this coming season.


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