Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Muir's Grasshopper

A friend (and insect photographer extraordinaire) named Marla recently gave me a copy of My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir. Last night I read Muir's charming description of a grasshopper:
"Up on the mountains he comes on excursions, how high I don’t know, but at least as far and high as Yosemite tourists.. I was much interested with the hearty enjoyment of the one that danced and sang for me on the Dome this afternoon."
Hmm…if it's "dancing and singing" it's definitely an Oedipodine or band-winged grasshopper. There were three common species in the high country early this fall when I visted the Sierras:

Trimerotropis verruculatus
Cratypedes neglectus Xanthippus sierra

Circotettix maculatus

Muir goes on and gives a few more clues to the identity of the mystery hopper:

"He seemed brimful of glad, hilarious energy, manifested by springing into the air to a height of 20 or thirty feet, then diving and springing up again and making a sharp musical rattle just as the lowest point in the descent was reached. Up and down a dozen times or so he danced and sang, then alighted to rest, then up and at it again…

…A fine sermon the little fellow danced for me on the Dome, a likely place to look for serrmons in stones, but not for grasshopper sermons."

The description implies a species that does a lengthy, conspicuous display flight with much noisy crepitation (wing snapping). The habitat is bare rock rather than woodland or meadow, and the entry is dated July 20, 1869. While not 100% conclusive, these characteristics strongly suggest Circotettix maculatus. I found this species abundant in the Sierras, and Muir’s description nails them. I find it very satisfying to be able to read his description and make the identification nearly 140 years after the observation.

C. maculatus

The other two species have both been associated with common names: the Crackling Forest Grasshopper (T. verruculatus) Sierra Grasshopper (Xanthippus sierra) and the Pronotal Range Grasshopper (C. neglectus). There is no such association with C. maculatus. Perhaps we should let Muir have a say in this species and refer to it as the Dancing Grasshopper.

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At 05:46, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think dancing grasshopper is a great name. I too have read that book and others that John Muir wrote about that part of the country. And Yosemite, even with its touristy hell in the valley, is still one of the most beautiful places on earth. Our favorite hangout there is Tuolumne Meadows.

At 09:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

fascinating!!! Interesting photographs and intersting write-up ... I'm quite impressed by the apparant fun in writing and the detail in description.

At 10:37, Blogger robin andrea said...

I really like how you were able to take Muir's poetic description and tease out an identification. Well done. Beautiful grasshoppers up there in the high country.

At 16:57, Blogger rodger said...

Nice work Doctor!

I remember the first time I climbed Half Dome I was surprised to find so many grasshoppers springing about. It hadn't occurred to me that there would be anything on that virtually desolate slab than other humans.

I also remember looking over the valley and along the tops of the Sierras and realizing that I too was merely a grasshopper.

At 10:04, Blogger Dave Coulter said...

What impresses me is how Muir writes about the grasshopper. You can sense his enjoyment of the experience. The description of the actual insect is secondary!

At 07:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must be one of the biggest fan of the Butterfly Haven ... but I again need help with the identification of butterflies ... I've posted many new images.

At 12:23, Blogger Jyoti said...

Thank You very much!

It's really nice to put the names with the images. I cant Thank You enough for the help ...

btw the different types of Heliconius and their mimics ... and the Mormon Swallowtail are very confusing.

At 13:22, Blogger Mr. Smiley said...

Sorry Doug but I think you've got the wrong grasshopper. Mui's comment "...height of 20 or thirty feet..." gives it away. He was probably watching the blue-winged Circotettix undulatus. C. maculatus (which sounds like a rattlesnake) doesn't fly that high. C. undulatus snaps, it sounds like a whip crack to some extent.

All the best.

Dave Rentz

At 19:01, Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

I've put a link to this post up at Linnaeus' Legacy.

At 17:08, Blogger Doug Taron said...

Mr. Smiley- Hi and welcome to the tapestry. Glad you stopped by. You raise an interesting point. Unlike C. maculatus, I have not actually seen C. undulatus, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage on that one. It's true, that typically the grasshoppers that I was seeing were hovering lower than 20-30 feet described by Muir, though some of them did get up that high. They did crepetate at the bottoms of their flight loops, much as Muir had described.

I was reasonalbly confident of the ID because, in addition to the other factors, this was far and away the commonest and most conspicuous of the Oedipodines that I encountered in the Sierra. OTOH, Muir was entering the High Sierra from the west, and at a considerably lower elevation. He specifically mentioned them in association with Half Dome, less than 9,000 ft. I entered the range from the east, and was encountering maculatus most abundantly in the 10-12,000 foot range. So I'd say that, particularly given your comments about the hover height that undulatus cannot be ruled out here.

In contrast, I do not believe that the crepetation sound points away from maculatus and towards undulatus. Otte describes maculatus as sounding like a rattlesnake. I found the sound to be much more like a small pennant flapping in a stiff breeze. Muir's description of the grasshopper's sound (a "sharp, musical rattle") could be matched equally well with my observations of maculatus and your description of undulatus. An interesting conundrum (though we are definitely still converging on the genus involved).

Christopher- Thanks for the link.

At 02:03, Blogger Tony said...

Well Doug, I'd rather look at grasshoppers than cockroaches. ;) LMAO!!!

I miss the mild chirps of crickets that were part of my former home area in the San Francisco Bay Area. Don't have that luxury here in the part of SoCal that I live in.

At 17:31, Blogger Fresh Kiki said...

Hi Doug- WOW what a trip you sure packed alot into a short trip- and 2 nights of black light catching- your nephew wants to try it!We'll have to get all the info on the how to's!
The photography is great!
I am glad you are home safe.


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