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human numbers have overwhelmed the planet’s ecosystems, and the native habitats described earlier mostly have been replaced by agriculture and urban growth in the Chicago region.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Prairie mostly has been replaced by agricultural fields, and fire suppression has led to its invasion by woody plants.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

Short-winged Toothpick Grasshopper

by Carl Strang

The most fruitful recent singing insects search was at the Kankakee Sands preserve in Kankakee County, which has become one of my favorites for species that affiliate with sand-soil habitats. The June 28 visit yielded 3 county records, two of which were of familiar species, Roesel’s katydid and green-winged cicada.

Grasshoppers were building up their diversity at the site. Sulfur-winged grasshoppers still were going, and the season’s first mottled sand grasshopper also flashed his wings.

This was by far the earliest I have found this sand-soil specialist.

This was by far the earliest I have found this sand-soil specialist.

Then in the prairie beyond the savanna I started to hear the zuzz-zuzz-zuzz of stridulating grasshoppers. I had a hard time getting a look at who it might be. Eventually I saw a possible candidate.

This grasshopper has a somewhat slanted face, and color markings reminiscent of stridulating grasshoppers in genus Orphulella.

This grasshopper has a somewhat slanted face, and color markings reminiscent of stridulating grasshoppers in genus Orphulella.

Study of the photos, however, led to an identification as the meadow purple-striped grasshopper, Hesperotettix viridis, in the non-singing spur-throated grasshopper group. As I waded through the grasses I flushed out a couple really odd grasshoppers that begged to be photographed.

The blade-like antennas, subtle striping pattern, and especially the gangly skinniness of the critter were distinctive.

The blade-like antennas, subtle striping pattern, and especially the gangly skinniness of the critter were distinctive.

They reminded me of high school basketball players whose growth spurts have given them impressive height, but whose strength and coordination have some catching up to do. Though I saw and photographed only the minute-winged females, my identification and study convinced me that these were the stridulators. The short-winged toothpick grasshopper is well named, seeming to be constructed of toothpicks. It is a member of the slant-faced stridulating subfamily, and is described as being a frequent singer. The species, also known by the more mundane name of bunchgrass grasshopper (Pseudopomala brachyptera), now is removed from my hypothetical list for my survey region.

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