Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 1: Glacial Influences

by Carl Strang

One of my winter projects has been to write new sections for my singing insects guide which go into ecological topics. This was inspired by my reading a newly published textbook on landscape ecology (With, Kimberly A. 2019. Essentials of landscape ecology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K. 641 pp). In the next few posts I will share parts of the added sections. Today’s focus is the impact of the last continental glacier on the landscape and selected insect species:

Though the focus in most of this guide is on the individual species of singing insects, the field of landscape ecology provides a framework of broader patterns and questions for which the ecologically diverse singing insects provide a suitable lens.

Landscape ecology considers geographical patterns and dynamics of their change across time. Any complete biological understanding of the Chicago region must include not only what is here now but also how it got that way. Fortunately, we don’t have to go back too far geologically speaking, as our landscape is less than 20,000 years old. Three major lobes of the most recent continental glacier flowed down from the North and scoured our region’s bedrock, then began their final retreat around 18,000 years ago. As the glacier melted, with occasional periods of stalling when the push from the North was balanced by melting at the edge, it left behind a variably deep layer of various kinds of deposits. The topography was more elevated in the morainal arcs where the melt was stalled for a time, lower and flatter when the melt-back was more uniform and rapid. Occasional pocks formed where blocks of glacial ice were buried and later melted, resulting in small lakes, bogs and other wetlands. Our rivers had their start as glacial meltwater drainage streams. The Lake Michigan Lobe of the glacier picked up and crushed the softer shale from the bottom of what was to become that lake, so it left behind deposits heavy in clay west and southwest of the lake. When glacial crunching and meltwater eroded harder igneous and metamorphic rocks the ice had transported from Canada, gravel and sand resulted. Quartz sand, the most erosion-resistant component of such rocks, accumulated especially around the edge of Lake Michigan and the tributaries of the Kankakee River, which started as a glacial meltwater drainage stream originating in the part of the region covered by the glacier’s Saginaw Lobe.

This glacial history impacted our singing insect fauna in various ways. Some species require, or at least are only abundant, on sandy soils. These include the green-winged and northern dusk-singing cicadas, whose nymphs live on buried plant roots, and some of the grasshoppers, for which the sandy substrate for egg-laying and/or a poor-soil plant community is an important habitat component. A couple of species, the gray ground cricket and the seaside grasshopper, are limited to the beaches and dunes around the Lake Michigan edge.

The beaches at different points on the Lake Michigan shore have different compositions, resulting in selection for different colors in the seaside grasshopper. Here, at Illinois Beach State Park, there is a greater mix of different colors of ground igneous and metamorphic rocks.

The beaches of the Indiana Dunes are a more uniform quartz sand. Here, two seaside grasshoppers (same species as in the previous picture) would be nearly invisible if they were not flashing their inner femur colors at one another.

Kames are gravel hills formed by waterfalls within the melting glacier, and they provide a well-drained substrate. Isolated populations of sulfur-winged grasshoppers and tinkling ground crickets live on a kame in the Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in northern Walworth County, Wisconsin.

Exposed gravel on part of the kame at Lulu Lake.

All species were pushed south by the glacier, surviving in what is now the southern U.S. and being influenced by selective forces then and during the advance north as the climate moderated and plant communities spread back over the barren glacial deposits. Most of our familiar prairie and forest plant species were restricted to rather small refuges in the South during the glacial maximum, though oaks and hickories occupied a large part of the southern U.S.

Black oak savanna, Kankakee County

As the glacier melted back, open sedge tundra with some black spruce trees invaded first, then white spruces filled in to form a recognizable northern coniferous forest until around 15,000 years ago. By around 12,000 years ago most of our landscape was a mix of deciduous species, including woodlands with lots of oaks. Beginning around 10,000 years ago there was a drying period, which led to the spread of prairie through our area. The prairie then retreated as the climate became wetter, so that by 6200 years ago the western part of our region was a prairie with islands of woodlands and wetlands, grading to forest in the eastern part. This reflects a gradient of increasing moisture from west to east, mediated by the flow of wet air circulating north from the Gulf of Mexico. The drier prairies were maintained by fires which frequently knocked back woody plants that otherwise would have converted even the western part of the region into woodlands. The wooded islands within the prairie were not randomly located, but survived where rivers, other wetlands, and topographic breaks shielded certain spots from prairie fires pushed by the prevailing westerly winds. The upshot for our singing insects is a diverse landscape that to this day contains species specializing in prairie, woodland and various wetland habitats, as well as some that thrive around the edges between habitat types. A few species may be relicts of earlier changes in this history. For instance, the delicate meadow katydid, now apparently extinct in the region, is abundant in prairies to the west and probably accompanied the prairie advance. By the early 20th Century it was known in a very few scattered locations. I have not been able to find it anywhere in the present day.

Delicate meadow katydid females have longer ovipositors than their close relatives.

A Pause in the Action

by Carl A. Strang

In the early part of the season, from April to early July, my research focus is on those species of singing insects which matured from overwintering nymphs, plus some small early-season cicadas. This is a minority of species, as most of the crickets, katydids, and singing grasshoppers mature after the middle of July, having wintered as relatively secure eggs and needing time to grow up.

I was able to close the book on northern wood crickets last month, and the story here is a sad one. This forest-dwelling member of the field cricket group had been reported from two northern Indiana sites by W.S. Blatchley in 1903. As far as I know, no one has sought them since then in the northern part of the state. Last year I determined that they no longer occur where Blatchley found them. This year I checked the largest other eight forests in the Indiana portion of my study region. If they ever were there, they are gone now. I suspect that forest fragmentation for agriculture and other purposes is responsible for the loss. Blatchley’s detailed descriptions leave no doubt that he knew how to recognize the species.

This northern wood cricket is from the northernmost site where I know they still occur, Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.

I was able to close the book on another southern species, the spring trig, in June.

This tiny, early-season cricket is common in southern Indiana.

I have found a few scattered groups of spring trigs in southernmost Fulton and Jasper Counties in Indiana. A thorough search failed to turn them up in neighboring Pulaski and Newton Counties. I may check again in a few years, on the possibility that the species is expanding northward.

One positive result was finding sulfur-winged grasshoppers in the East Main Street Prairie of Cary, Illinois. This adds McHenry to the counties where I have found the species. They probably occur in every county in my region but are common only on sandy or gravelly soils such as Cary’s kame-like hills. I have learned of another candidate site which may add Fulton County, Indiana, next year.

Sulfur-winged grasshoppers are characterized by bright yellow hind wings, which they rattle in flight to produce their song.

Prairie cicadas started a little late this year. I was pleased to find that management efforts to remove brush from the West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve near my home appears to have paid off in both rebound of diverse prairie vegetation and an increase in the cicada numbers.

Prairie cicadas, are tiny, around an inch long.

Failure to perform such restoration work has a cost. Once known to occur in Kankakee County, prairie cicadas apparently are gone from there, the prairies having been degraded by brush, teasel and other invasive plants.

A final story is that of the periodical cicadas. In each cycle since 1973, the main appearance of 17-year cicadas in Chicago’s western suburbs has been preceded by a significant, 4-year-early emergence. This happened in 1969, 1986, and 2003. I suspect that in a small part of this area, all the cicadas now have switched to the early time. If you have done the math, you realize that it may happen again next year. One predictor to watch for are what I call oops cicadas, a few individuals who jump the gun by a year, or miss the main emergence and come out a year late. As expected, this has been happening this spring. I have heard 3 individuals myself in two cities and seen photos of the insects from 3 more. Counting and mapping them will be a highlight of next year’s early field season.

I predict that some areas will have good numbers of 17-year cicadas next year.

Closing the Book on Sulfur-wings

by Carl Strang

The sulfur-winged grasshopper is an early season species that I wanted to close out this year, in my regional survey of singing insects. Though it probably occurs in all 22 of the counties in my survey region, it is common only on soils heavy in gravel or sand. I targeted 3 counties with such soils where I had not yet found this crepitating (wing-rattling) grasshopper: Walworth in Wisconsin, LaPorte in Indiana, and Berrien in Michigan.

Success came first at the Lulu Lake natural area in Walworth County. I did not find it in the Nature Conservancy portion of the property, but gravel-hill openings in the forest on the state nature preserve side proved to have a good population.

One of the series of photos documenting sulfur-winged grasshoppers at Lulu Lake.

Subsequently I found them in the Lake Michigan coastal zone in LaPorte and Berrien Counties. In the process I learned a final lesson from the grasshoppers: they don’t like loose dune sand, and need to be sought a little farther inland, where plants and the accumulation of organic matter have made the soil more stable. That closes the book on sulfur-winged grasshoppers as far as my survey is concerned, and I will put my time into other species at this point of the season in future years.

The updated Chicago region sulfur-winged grasshopper map, marking counties where I have found it.

 

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