Planning for the coming singing insects field season has been one of my major occupations this winter. I am looking forward to visiting many new sites, and hope to find some of the species that historically occurred in the Chicago region but which have eluded me so far. Part of that process has been to visit insect collections, gaining information on those species and taking photographs that will help me recognize them.
While at the Purdue University and Illinois Natural History Survey collections, the two museums I have visited so far, I also photographed specimens of species that I have heard but not yet photographed in the field. This will enhance next year’s edition of the guide.
The northern mole cricket is one of those species. This front-end view shows why that cricket is well named.
A note on one specimen said it was collected while flying around in someone’s garage. I had not been aware that northern mole crickets can fly.
Another plan for the upcoming guide is to add pages for the species that have been documented in the Chicago region, but which I have not yet found. Researching those species is getting me better prepared to find them.
There is a Kankakee County record for the common virtuoso katydid, in or near the Illinois Kankakee Sands preserve. That is one species I will be seeking this year.
Walker’s cicada has been collected in a few locations around the region. I need to be alert for its distinctive song in the coming season.
The coral-winged grasshopper will be one of the earliest species for me to seek this spring. They overwinter as nymphs, and have been found mainly in May in past years. I have several locations to check.
The large spots on the sides of the wings, along with the golden wing edges and brightly colored hind wings, are distinguishing features of coral-winged grasshoppers.
Female delicate meadow katydids have unusually long ovipositors. This example will help me distinguish them from green-faced individuals of the dusky-faced meadow katydid. I have not given up hope for the delicate meadow katydid in the region.
Another species I still hope to find is the slender conehead. This one, collected at Illinois Beach State Park in 1906, shows the main distinguishing features of that wetland species: the front of the cone is all black, and there is a right-angle bend in the contour of the pronotum’s posterior edge.
All of this is getting me fired up, but I still have two months to wait. Maybe another museum visit is in order…
The Dead River, in Illinois Beach State Park, is so named because most of the time it appears not to be flowing. It ends just shy of the edge of Lake Michigan, a sand bar between the two. Reportedly there are times when enough water comes into it that it breaks through this narrow barrier. The area south of that river is highly protected, and to enter it I needed a permit from the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
The Dead River and its extensions are free of invasive wetlands plants, though there are some unconnected wetlands in the area for which that is not the case.
Sand savanna and prairie occupy the spaces between the wetlands.
My main goal was to survey the area for wetland singing insects. This was one of my last hopes for finding slender coneheads, but sadly there were none. I am beginning to think they have gone extinct in Illinois. On a much brighter note, I found that the area harbors a huge population of stripe-faced meadow katydids.
This male had developed his full facial color, but an intervening grass blade marred the portrait.
Profile view of a female.
Illinois Beach remains the only place where I have found this wetland katydid, which even historically was never widely distributed.
I also heard a little chorus of nimble meadow katydids, out in the middle of a river offshoot in a patch of deeper-water arrowheads. There probably are other such groups elsewhere in the area. I plan to get a better idea of their numbers next year. This is the second place I have found them in the region, and the first for Illinois. I spent several days in my kayak this season searching for nimble meadow katydids in places in Illinois and Indiana where they were known in earlier decades.
Apparently the American lotus, shown here, and the yellow pond lily, which filled most of those sites, are too coarse for nimble meadow katydids.
I have found them among pickerel weeds and arrowheads, and historically they were known in patches of water knotweeds.
Water knotweed, like those others, is of intermediate coarseness.
I suspect that the turbulence created by power boats favors the heavier plants that the insect apparently abhors. I wonder if Illinois Beach State Park also may harbor the last Illinois population of nimble meadow katydids. I have a few more places to check next year.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
It should be obvious that this title is not a political reference. In this election year both political conservatives and liberals are easy to find as they loudly and shrilly make their cases against each other, trying to attract voters (hm, reminds me of singing insects for some reason). The conservatives I am concerned about here are some of the wetland species of singing insects, habitat specialists that are found only within narrow ranges of ecological parameters and are sensitive to invasive species and other disruptions. Much of my research this year is focused on finding conservative species from my hypothetical list for the region.
I haven’t had a lot of luck with wetland conservatives. The northern mole cricket was one, but I still have not found them anywhere but Houghton Lake. The marsh conehead was another. We thought we also found slender coneheads at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but Gideon discovered when he returned to his lab that they all were marsh coneheads as well, misleading because they were outside the size range of that species he was familiar with in Missouri.
Gideon also learned that the underside of the cone should be black, not gray as it was on the marsh coneheads we found.
But what about the several species of wetland meadow katydids in genus Orchelimum? Regionally there should be four species I haven’t yet found: dusky-faced, stripe-faced, delicate and nimble meadow katydids all have been elusive. I should have found dusky-faced meadow katydids, at least, because they are described as being common in a wide range of marshes. Instead I am finding lots of black-legged meadow katydids, a marsh species that spills into drier areas adjacent to wetlands.
Black-legged meadow katydid
Black-legs sing so loudly, day and night, that I wonder how earlier researchers heard the other wetland species. I wonder if black-legs have become more abundant, conceivably pushing the others out. Have I not been looking in the right places or in the right way? Is the lack of success this year a consequence of the drought? Certainly it takes some effort this year to get wet feet in the marshes. I will continue to look. Last week at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Illinois I saw a number of Orchelimum nymphs that were relatively plain and green.
This female meadow katydid nymph is recognized as an Orchelimum by the curved ovipositor.
On the other hand, black-legs don’t get their full colors until after they mature.
This newly molted adult male black-legged meadow katydid still has not developed his full coloration.
I will continue to look this year, and hope for better conditions next year.
[Note: Gideon later wrote to share his conclusion that the coneheads we collected were in fact marsh coneheads. The individuals in that population are larger than the ones he was familiar with in Missouri, and the strange gray underside of the cone also was misleading. He later found slender coneheads in another part of their range.] Gideon Ney, Nathan Harness and I reconvened at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. We set up camp, but then had to wait out a long afternoon rain wondering if it would stop, if an evening’s search would be any good. The rain stopped an hour before dusk, and we set out prepared to wade through tall wet marsh grasses. We stopped at a corner of the Lakeshore’s Great Marsh, and traded stories as the light faded away. We started hearing the shrill buzzes of coneheads, and began to stalk them. Some of the early ones appeared to be marsh coneheads (Neoconocephalus palustris), which Gideon and Nathan had encountered in Missouri. Then we started catching different ones, and Gideon became increasingly excited as he ticked off characteristics, ultimately concluding that these were the long-sought slender coneheads.
Slender coneheads have medium-sized cones with nearly all the underside darkly pigmented. The Nebraska conehead is similarly marked, but occurs in wooded habitat rather than marsh, and has an interrupted rather than a continuous song.
Most of the ones we found were brown rather than green.
They usually sing head down. This one I disturbed, and he froze after changing position.
Nathan also found plenty of meadow katydids to study back in the lab.
Nathan and Gideon inventory their haul.
They took live katydids back to Missouri, so they can record their songs under controlled conditions in the lab and then get detailed DNA and other biochemical analyses to compare to other conehead species.
Ultimately Gideon hopes to collect slender coneheads from several locations. This species is interesting because it occurs in scattered, separated locations from the Atlantic coast to a site in northwest Illinois. How will its population genetics reflect this indication of a storied evolutionary history?
The night had one concluding chapter, which I’ll share in the next post.
Last winter I was contacted by Gideon Ney, a graduate student at the University of Missouri in the laboratory led by Johannes Schul. Their focus is the evolutionary relationships among katydids, and members of that research group have published significant analyses of coneheaded katydids, genus Neoconocephalus. One species which they had not yet studied is the slender conehead, Neoconocephalus lyristes, and Gideon found my post in this blog on that species last winter. There I mentioned my interest in finding lyristes, and we corresponded through the succeeding months as we planned our hunt for it. Gideon and another student from that lab, Nathan Harness, who is beginning a study of Orchelimum meadow katydids, came up last week. They started at Chain O’Lakes State Park in Illinois, and I joined them the next day at Illinois Beach State Park. We set up camp, did some scouting, then relaxed in the afternoon.
Gideon and Nathan enjoy the inland sea waters of Lake Michigan.
Coneheads for the most part sing after dark, and we began to drive the roads with windows and ears open as dusk deepened to night. The first conehead we found was the sword-bearing conehead, a common species of dry meadows.
The face of a sword-bearing conehead. The English name for the group refers to the structure protruding from the top of the head between the eyes. In this species the cone has a crescent-shaped black mark near the tip.
The sword-bearing conehead is named for the female’s ovipositor. Gideon caught one and held it for my photo.
Here you can see that the ovipositor extends slightly beyond the wings.
Most of the coneheads we found had unornamented cones like those of the robust conehead, which I found at Kankakee Sands last month. However, the song was not nearly as loud, and the tentative conclusion was that these belonged to a different species, the false robust conehead. We heard a good variety of singing insects, but no slender coneheads, and so made plans to shift to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore the next day (to be continued).
The next species in my series on singing insects which may occur in northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana but which I have not found is the slender conehead. Here is the range map from the Singing Insects of North America website (SINA).
This appears to be another example of a species better represented by the dots on the map, which indicate concrete observations, rather than by the shading that connects them. The notes on the SINA page for this species refer to its disjunct populations. It is described as a species of bogs and marshes, and its song apparently is a continuous buzz like that of the round-tipped conehead.
Over the years the slender conehead has been found repeatedly in 3 counties in northern Illinois: Cook, Lake, and Carroll (the last in NW Illinois). It also was found once in Porter County, Indiana, in 1935. Likewise, all Illinois records are 1935 or older except for one undated record for Lake County and one for Carroll.
So far, every conehead population I have encountered has consisted of widely scattered individuals. For a species to persist in a narrowly defined habitat like a bog or a marsh, I therefore would expect the geographic extent of the marsh to be fairly large, to sustain a big enough population of slender coneheads to resist local extinction. Thus at some point I should seek out large marshes in the counties where the slender conehead has been found in the past. Perhaps the best starting point is the Indiana Dunes State Park (in Porter County), which has extensive marsh and bog areas that are relatively high in quality. It goes on my list for next year.