Sarah Fuller, author of this month's Nature Notes, is a Restoration Management Assistant at Kankakee sands and has enjoyed her first season on the prairie. With help from all of the Kankakee Sands staff, she has been able to transform many unidentifiable flora and fauna into identifiable ones.
The prairie is, among many things, mysterious to me. As far as I know, it is teeming with unidentified flying objects. For instance, the gravel and sandy areas of Kankakee Sands had an abundance of UFOs that seemed to disappear upon landing. Their distinct black wings with a light cream or yellow border resembled nothing on the ground. Unaware of any dragonfly or butterfly able to hide their wings, I knew these excellent camouflagers had to be something else. And luckily, after a strategic search of the landing site, I did find something else on the ground – grasshoppers!
These insects, along with crickets and katydids, are in the order Orthoptera. Of the three, grasshoppers are the ones with antennae shorter than their bodies. As a defining characteristic, insects within this order have a set of straight (ortho) wings (pter) which are not used for flying and serve as rigid covers for the second pair of wings. The second pair of wings, such as the black and cream colored pair I saw in flight, is membranous and is able to fold like a fan to fit underneath the firm front wings. As shown in the pictures, the top wing provides excellent camouflage. And the second pair of wings, only visible during flight, offers a contrasting image which can serve to confuse predators.
With the satisfaction of knowing I was looking at flying grasshoppers, I further identified this species as a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). One prairie mystery solved. Within the subfamily of Band-winged Grasshoppers and in the family of Short-horned Grasshoppers, these locusts mostly eat grasses and herbaceous plants and are not considered pests. Common throughout North America, these grayish tan to brown grasshoppers generally match the color of dry soil. They grow up to 2 inches long and are among the largest in the nation.
You’re likely to notice adult grasshoppers in late summer and early fall. In the spring, grasshoppers emerge from buried eggs. Once hatched, they are called nymphs and are capable of hopping. At this stage, they cannot yet fly but will molt about 5 times throughout the summer as their bodies grow and their wing pads develop into wings. In the fall, with fully developed wings and reproductively mature, adults mate, and females deposit clusters of eggs in the soil. The eggs will not hatch until the soil is warm ensuring that the next generation is protected from inclement winter weather.
In the sunny prairie, grasshoppers are often the most abundant insect and serve as important herbivores eating up to their body weight in plant material every day. Grasshoppers are, in turn, eaten by opportunistic animals such as reptiles, birds, raccoons, and coyotes.
It is very likely that you could identify your own Carolina Locust in sandy and gravely areas, such as a roadside, near you. But don’t let the edge of the prairie be your limit in searching for UFOs. There are species of grasshoppers that you will only find within the prairie. One such sighting in tall bunchgrasses could be the rare brown colored Short-Winged Toothpick Grasshopper (Pseudopomala brachyptera). With its slanted face and sword shaped antennae, you may even feel as if you’ve found something extraterrestrial. The mystery of where it landed is waiting to be solved.