Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 2: Human Influences

by Carl Strang

The previous post illustrated that the Chicago region has been a dynamically changing landscape through the recent millennia, but that now is overshadowed by the alterations our own species has made. Burgeoning human numbers have overwhelmed the planet’s ecosystems, and the native habitats described earlier mostly have been replaced by agriculture and urban growth in the Chicago region. One of the more dramatic changes is the loss of the Kankakee wetland, once described as the Everglades of the North. That vast wetland was drained for agriculture, and only a few pockets of it survive in preserves. Much of the Kankakee River in Indiana is now a straight channel with constructed high levee banks. Other smaller wetlands received similar treatment, with drainage ditches spreading across the agricultural portion of the region. This is not universally devastating to wetland species. Northern mole crickets, for instance, occasionally can be found along drainage ditches.

Drainage ditch, upper reaches of the Kankakee River, St. Joseph County, Indiana. Note farm fields on both sides.

Prairie mostly has been replaced by agricultural fields, and fire suppression has led to its invasion by woody plants. Specialists such as the prairie meadow katydid, prairie cicada and short-winged toothpick grasshopper are hard to find.

Prairie meadow katydid

My singing insects research has required a lot of driving to reach the relatively tiny surviving preserves and parks to which many of the species are now restricted. Much management effort is required in these little islands to maintain their habitats. There are exceptions, of course. Many other species have thrived under our influence. These are mainly weedy ones such as the striped ground cricket, short-winged meadow katydid and Carolina grasshopper, which do well in disturbed habitats, along with woodland edge species such as the greater angle-wing, snowy tree cricket, and jumping bush cricket, which can meet their needs in residential neighborhoods dominated by lawns and scattered trees and shrubs.

Jumping bush cricket

Habitat destruction is not the only human influence. Climate change is the probable cause of northward range expansions by several singing insect species, and it likely will lead to the extinction of the sphagnum ground cricket from the region as the sphagnum bogs dry up. Say’s cicada and some northern grasshoppers already appear to be pushed out.

Sphagnum ground cricket

Climate change isn’t simply a matter of rising temperatures, as the term “global warming” may seem to imply. Global warming is an accurate enough term, as the simplest way to measure climate change is to track the global average temperature. But the point is that our changes to the Earth’s thin skin of atmosphere are increasing its held solar energy. That energy alters patterns of atmospheric flow and the behavior of storms. Droughts, more frequent flood-causing rains, and seasonal increases or decreases in temperature that seem abnormal are examples of results we observe locally. The singing insects are forced to adjust as best they can. Droughts force sphagnum ground crickets into the wettest parts of their bogs. The severe drought of 2012 concentrated wetland meadow katydids and marsh coneheads into the small portions of the Great Marsh in the Indiana Dunes National Park that remained wet. Oblong-winged meadow katydids may be pre-adapted to such year-to-year variability. Blatchley (1920) observed that their eggs, laid in moist soil, can take 2-3 years to hatch. In my travels through the region I failed to hear a single individual in the years 2010 and 2019, but in other years they have been abundant and widespread. Some of the cicadas and other species may have similar flexibilities.

Oblong-winged katydid

People also have introduced plant species from other parts of the world which, released from the consumers and competitors which hold them in check in their native lands, have become invasive plants here. Their unfair competitive advantage has led to their displacing the region’s native vegetation in an increasing number of places. This is most evident in our wetlands. Wetland meadow katydids and other singing insects are limited to places where native wetland grasses have not been supplanted by reed canary grass, common reed, purple loosestrife, and hybrid cattails. These invasive plants are proving difficult to control, and the outlook is not good for species such as the dusky-faced meadow katydid and marsh conehead. To my knowledge the once relatively widespread stripe-faced meadow katydid now is confined to a single site, and the slender conehead, never known from many locations, apparently is gone from the region.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Introductions have not been limited to plants. Several species of singing insects also have been imported. Roesel’s katydid is the most common of these in our region. A European predaceous katydid, Roesel’s was introduced to the Montreal, Quebec, area several decades ago and expanded from there. They occur in open habitats with tall herbaceous vegetation throughout the Chicago region. Japanese burrowing crickets are thought to have arrived at the port of Mobile and spread out from there. They are abundant as far north as Indianapolis, and common in Rensselaer in the southern part of our region. With scattered new appearances each year occurring as far north as DuPage County in Illinois, so far, I expect them to become widespread and abundant here. The tropical house cricket represents the possibility of other, short-term introductions that are unlikely to persist in our climate.

Roesel’s katydid

More Prairie Meadow Katydids


by Carl Strang

Last year I first encountered what I thought were prairie meadow katydids (Conocephalus saltans), in my survey of the Chicago region’s singing insects. Further study confirmed my identifications, and set the stage for finding the species in a third location in 2017. On September 2, Lisa Rainsong and I ran into a cluster of small meadow katydids at the Pembroke Savanna Nature Preserve, a Nature Conservancy savanna in eastern Kankakee County. These proved to be a mix of two species, straight-lanced meadow katydids (Conocephalus strictus) and prairie meadow katydids.

A scene at Pembroke Savanna, which I regard as the most beautiful site in the 22-county Chicago region.

Finding these two similar species together provided us with a tutorial in distinguishing them. Most of the individuals were females, and the contrast in their ovipositors could not be starker. Those of the prairie meadow katydids had a slight curve, and were much shorter.

Female prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Straight-lanced females have straight ovipositors that typically are as long as their bodies, or longer.

Female straight-lanced meadow katydid, Judy Burton Nature Preserve, Indiana. This one is atypical in having long wings. Most have wings about a third the length of the abdomen.

Prairie meadow katydids have wings that usually are only a quarter of the abdomen length. The knob at the tip of the head is more pronounced, though both species have this knob. The sides of the hind femurs also are different. In prairie meadow katydids there is a pattern of thin lines that resemble a ladder, on a brown leg. There usually is a diffuse black line that appears to be within the straight-lanced meadow katydid’s green hind femur. Some variation occurs in many of these features, so I advise caution and the examination of several individuals within a population.

Males have been fewer in both species, in the populations I have examined.


Male prairie meadow katydid, Pembroke

Again, the more exaggerated head knob, shorter wings, and different femur pattern are helpful. Cerci are very different in the two species, also.

Male straight-lanced meadow katydid, from another eastern Kankakee County savanna site.

I did not get a photo showing the prairie meadow katydid’s cerci, but their ends are much shorter, proportionately, than those of the straight-lanced in the photo, comparable in length to the teeth, and bend outward somewhat rather than being straight.

A final curious note from Pembroke was that the prairie meadow katydids were all brown, as the photos show. The straight-lanced meadow katydids had considerable amounts of green color. This may have been the result of local selective pressures, as this is not a consistent difference across the species’ ranges.

Making a Case 2: Prairie Meadow Katydid

by Carl Strang

After more than ten years of study, I still have not found several species of singing insects that historically were known in the Chicago region. One of these was the prairie meadow katydid, one of the smaller members of its group. On August 16, Wendy Partridge and I were checking out the bike trail near the nature center at Illinois Beach State Park. Through the SongFinder, which allows me to hear high pitches, I heard faint rapid ticking sounds which, when heard from a closer position, resolved into brief buzzes. They were mechanical and katydid-like rather than cricket-like in quality, and didn’t match anything I had heard before. Wendy, with her unusually good hearing, barely could pick them up. Later, checking reference recordings, I decided they fit the song of the prairie meadow katydid. They were not in the habitat I would expect, however, being in dense vegetation where grasses were mixed with woody plants and forbs, generally shaded. That katydid species has been known to occur in that park, however.

Then on September 27 I caught and photographed a small female meadow katydid in a relatively dry portion of the Gensburg Prairie in Cook County.

Posterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female.

Posterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female.

Her color didn’t seem quite right for a short-winged meadow katydid, which is a common species at that site especially in the wetter portions. Studying the photos, and looking back at references, I have decided that she was a prairie meadow katydid. Along the way I looked back at all my photos of short-winged meadow katydids, and found two other individuals that met at least some of the criteria for prairie meadow katydid, one in 2011 at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and one in 2014 in the savanna woodland at Illinois Beach State Park.

The Mayslake female

The Mayslake female

The Illinois Beach State Park female

The Illinois Beach State Park female

All three have curved ovipositors that are slenderer in proportion than in a typical short-winged meadow katydid.

Typical female short-winged meadow katydid

Typical female short-winged meadow katydid

All three also have femoral patterns in which there is a lengthwise pair of lines, as in the short-winged, but have ladders of narrow crossbars rather than being clear between them as in typical short-winged. There is enough overlap in body length, according to references, that it is not a consideration in comparing those two species. The ovipositors are too short, and the femur patterns wrong, for straight-lanced meadow katydid to be a consideration. The Mayslake female is different from the other two individuals in three possibly significant ways: the femoral ground color is green rather than brown or tan, the wings are much longer, and the front of the head does not appear to rise so much (this last being a difference mentioned by W.S. Blatchley in his classic Orthoptera of Northeastern North America, which gives unusually detailed descriptions of species).

Anterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female. Note the abrupt rise of the tip of the head when viewed from the side.

Anterior portion of the Gensburg Prairie female. Note the abrupt rise of the tip of the head when viewed from the side.

Dorsal view of the Gensburg Prairie female. Blatchley describes the wings of prairie females as covering only one-fourth of the abdomen, two-thirds in short-winged females. Furthermore, the tip of the head, when viewed from above, is relatively wide after an inward bending of its sides, expected from Blatchley’s description.

Dorsal view of the Gensburg Prairie female. Blatchley describes the wings of prairie females as covering only one-fourth of the abdomen, two-thirds in short-winged females. Furthermore, the tip of the head, when viewed from above, is relatively wide after an inward bending of its sides, expected from Blatchley’s description.

Compare this common meadow katydid, with its relatively narrow and straight-sided tip of the head, to the previous.

Compare this short-winged meadow katydid, with its relatively narrow and straight-sided tip of the head, to the previous.


Side view of the same male as in the previous photo. Again, note the lack of a rise in the top of the head profile.

Side view of the same male as in the previous photo. Again, note the lack of a rise in the top of the head profile.

Blatchley also believed that prairie meadow katydids occur only in “raw prairie,” a description which applies to Gensburg and Illinois Beach but not to Mayslake. I am inclined to regard the Mayslake individual as an anomalous short-winged meadow katydid, but pending study of museum specimens, am naming the other two prairie meadow katydids.

Seeking All the Answers

by Carl Strang

OK, the title is way too big for the subject of this post, but it’s not entirely wrong. As I complete my 6th season of singing insects study, there remain several species that range maps indicate should be in northeastern Illinois, but that I have yet to find. The past couple of seasons I have been going to places that match habitat descriptions for missing species, and I have added techniques to my repertoire. This has filled some of the gaps, for instance with the sphagnum ground crickets I found at Volo Bog. Now I am beginning to go to the source data on which those maps are built. Today’s example is the prairie meadow katydid.

This is the map for that species in the Singing Insects of North America website (SINA). It appears in the site’s page for the prairie meadow katydid, and as you can see it indicates a range that encompasses northeastern Illinois. SINA is the most comprehensive source of information about our singing insects. Created by Tom Walker, SINA is very clear and open about its methods. The maps are constructed by a computer program from a database you can download. The information for each dot on the map is in that database, and that is what I studied to further my search for the prairie meadow katydid.

A couple of things stood out as I focused on the Illinois and Indiana records for this species. First, all but one of the Illinois records are older than 1940. The same is true for all but four of the Indiana records. Things change, and I wonder if these data still are valid. Second, all the Illinois records appear to be from areas with sandy soil, as are at least most of the ones from northern Indiana. I am not so familiar with the southern Indiana sites.

Nearly all my field work has been in DuPage County, which lacks sandy soils. I conclude that I should return to places I began to visit this year that have such soils, and see if I can find this katydid there. Since it is one of the smaller meadow katydids, I will need to use the SongFinder to hear it, and may need to get permits to do some sweep sampling in order to see it.


by Carl Strang

Identifying species of small meadow katydids (genus Conocephalus), especially nymphs, can be challenging. Most adults are readily sorted out, especially males if you can get a good look at the cerci or claspers at the tips of their abdomens.  Females are trickier, but their ovipositors often allow distinctions to be made. I’ve decided to take a shotgun approach in my survey at Mayslake Forest Preserve, sweep sampling on a weekly basis and taking photos of as many individuals as I can. Last week I noticed something that is potentially helpful.

This is an unambiguous male short-winged meadow katydid. Cerci are right, lots of orange color around the abdomen tip, short wings, small size.

As I compared my many photos, I found that the color pattern on the sides of the hind femurs drew my eye. Notice the band of clear green color bounded by brown stripes on either side. Here’s a female, again clearly a short-winged.

Though she may be an instar short of adulthood, this one has the ovipositor of a short-winged.

Again the color pattern on the femur appears. I did an Internet search, and except for some photos from Texas, short-winged meadow katydids show this striping pattern across eastern North America. Then I began to compare other species. I started with another familiar one, the slender meadow katydid.

This male I photographed last year has clear green femurs, without the stripes.

Again an Internet and reference book search showed consistently clear green femurs on this species. However, I was surprised to find that a female I had identified a couple years ago as a slender meadow katydid had the femur stripes.

The long wings fooled me. The ovipositor actually rules out slender meadow katydid. This was a rare individual short-winged meadow katydid with long wings.

Next I turned to two species I have been seeking, which could overlap with the short-winged’s habitat. Straight-lanced meadow katydids in references and Internet photos lack the short-winged’s stripe pattern, instead often showing a diffuse blackish zone down that face of the femur. I went to photos of females I tentatively had identified as that species last year.

This one not only has an ovipositor much longer than the femur length, and lacks orange at the abdomen tip, but shows a femur color pattern different from the short-wingeds’ and consistent with straight-lanced reference photos. In fact it appears that the diffuse black zone is the same as the upper dark stripe on the short-winged, but differing in color and not sharply bounded. The lower stripe is there as well, but just as a trace of a line. I believe this individual may indeed have been a straight-lanced meadow katydid.

Others prove, on closer inspection, in fact to have been short-wingeds.

This young nymph has an ovipositor marginally longer than the femur, but has an instar or two to go until maturity and looks awfully orange around the abdomen. The femur color pattern clearly ties it to short-wingeds, and I think that is where this insect belongs.

The other species I need to sort out is the prairie meadow katydid. Few photos of this one are out there. In some there is no stripe pattern like the short-winged’s, in some there is a hint of one. For now I will need to focus on cerci (straighter, more pointed and with distinctly longer teeth than the short-winged male’s) and ovipositors (proportionately more curved than the short-winged female’s). I am encouraged, however, to continue looking for details of color pattern that might provide short-cuts to field identification at least in regional or local populations.

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