Hidin’ Hoppers

Grasshoppers and katydids provide abundant and nutritious food to many birds and other animals. That works out great for those other animals, but if you’re a grasshopper or katydid, it behooves you to not stand out in a crowd (or a prairie). There are countless examples of great camouflage in the insect world, but I’ve always particularly appreciated the evolved ability of orthopterans to blend into the background. Of course, that sometimes makes photography a challenge, but not in a bad way.

This toothpick grasshopper would have been nearly impossible to spot if I hadn’t seen it hop away from my feet and into this clump of grass.
Sometimes, grasshoppers are so abundant that it’s not possible to ignore them, especially in late summer prairies when many species are mature adults and explode from their perches like popcorn in front of a hiker or vehicle.

Grasshoppers don’t rely solely on hiding for survival, of course. They are also incredible jumpers, with the ability to instantly propel themselves impressive distances through the air when they feel threatened. If they’re caught, they can also expel gross substances out of both ends of their bodies to make predators rethink their choices.

Mature band-winged grasshoppers flash colorful wings and make a loud ‘clacking’ sound as they flee (by jumping into the air and flying), which must be awfully startling and distracting to potential predators. If the strategy works, the predator won’t see exactly where the grasshopper lands and its incredible camouflage makes it difficult to find again. (This strategy also works on photographers, by the way, not just predators.)

I see frequently see several species of band-winged grasshoppers in the Nebraska Sandhills. They’re particularly adept at hiding in the bare sandy patches between plants.
This band-winged grasshopper is basically just a lump of sand with antennae…
When adult band-winged grasshoppers flee, however, they switch from a hide strategy to s startle strategy, deploying colorful wings and a loud distracting clacking sound as they hop/fly away.

Grasshoppers are a much more diverse and interesting group of insects than they’re often given credit for. They have complex communication strategies, for example, including both visual and auditory signals. Many people might also be surprised to know that not all grasshoppers eat grass. In fact, quite a few grasshoppers are quite specialized in their diet choices and a lot of them feed on broad-leaved plants instead of grasses.

The plains lubber grasshopper (Brachystola magna) is a flightless grasshopper the size of a mouse. Against bare sand, it doesn’t appear particularly hard to see, and it’s size works against it. But…
When it’s on its favorite food plant (plains sunflower – Helianthus petiolaris) the plains lubber blends in pretty dang well, despite its size.
The painted grasshopper, aka barber pole grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) seems like it would be easy to find, but like leopards, they can blend very easily into the shadows and patterns of prairie vegetation.
Katydids are no slouches in the camouflage department either. This bush katydid (Scudderia sp.) looks an awful lot like a leaf to someone scanning the prairie for prey.
I know I’ve mentioned the cudweed grasshopper (Hypochlora alba) many times on this blog, but it still deserves to be included in any discussion of grasshopper camouflage. Its ability to blend with its favorite food plant (cudweed sagewort – Artemisia ludiviciana) is simply magical.

We’re creeping closer to the beginning of grasshopper season here in Nebraska. Some species overwinter as adults and can be often be found soaking up the sun on warm days in late March or early April. Soon after, they’re joined by many others – of all different sizes and colors. If you’ve never paid special attention to the diversity and beauty of grasshoppers and katydids, maybe this would be a good year to start.

If you can find them.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

12 thoughts on “Hidin’ Hoppers

  1. Wow! Gorgeous photos, and now I know more about grasshoppers. Great job getting past that camouflage and hunting down those hoppers for pictures!

    As a new reader of this blog, I had never seen the cudweed grasshopper. Magical is a perfect word to describe it.

    • Hi Helen, no. it’s not so much that they emit an odor (in my experience) as much as that they create those little bubbles of regurgitated liquid that taste bad and often poop at the same time. This one seemed pretty calm when I picked it up – and let it go pretty quickly too.

  2. Thank you once again for sharing your talent and knowledge with us! Fascinating tales of these clever and wonderful creatures and how they have “figured out” how to stay safe and live their best lives in a prairie! You (and they) are appreciated.

  3. Wow! Very interesting photos and interesting details of the different grasshoppers!

    Kathy Dewell

  4. That many grasshoppers feed on a variety of broad-leaf plants comes as no shock to gardeners. Nice photos, though!

  5. Hi Chris, Thanks for continuing with your blog and fabulous photos. I am immersed in the desert now, and the (challenges with) the Colorado River, and I love being taken to another part of the country. Best, Kacy

  6. Great photo essay on some bugs I’ve always found interesting, but could know a lot more about. You made their identification look easy, but there are lots of taxonomic tangles and tricks in the group!

  7. Hi Chris. Nice article & photos. Cool to see someone else that digs the toothpick grasshopper. Here in coastal southern California, I find them most often on cattails. They sure are camera-shy, moving to the other side of the plant. With patience, I made some good images.

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