100 Years – 100 Objects: Giant Long-legged Katydid

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Katydids are related to crickets and grasshoppers, but unlike these relatives, katydids’ wings are folded tent-like over their back.  The extremely long antennae are very sensitive to touch.  Katydids are among the most camouflaged of all insects; their wings look almost exactly like leaves, sometimes bearing spots or even holes.  Most katydids are green, but in the tropics some occur in shades of brown or gray, or even yellow and pink! 

blog-115This species, Macrolyristes corporalis, one of our insect zoo inhabitants but native to the rainforests of Malaysia, is the largest katydid in the world.  The leaf-like wings are at first entire, but as the katydid ages the back edge becomes discolored and eroded, looking like an old or damaged leaf rather than a young fresh one.  Despite its long legs, this species cannot jump well, and it rarely flies.  It is also one of the very loudest insects.  Katydids rub their wings together to “sing” – when this one sings, it sounds like a major machinery malfunction!  Notice the “ears” just below the “knees” on the front pair of legs.                                             

Female katydids have a long sword-like ovipositor (egg-laying organ).  This species inserts its long, narrow eggs (each over ½ inch long) into rotten wood.  We are now rearing our second set of babies! 

Learn more about katydids and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

Photo From You: Insect Identification

 A Mole Cricket
photo provided by Rachel Drew

Hello again, dear readers and bug lovers! I was very pleased to discover this week that we recieved a photo all the way from Virginia Beach, Virginia. This one can be a real head-scratcher for those of you who have never seen one before, which is probably most of you!

I first happened upon this insect in college while collecting insects in a huge parking lot at night. I saw some sort of large insect jumping and flying for several feet at a time. When I finally caught up to it, I was honestly taken aback by what I saw. It was a mole cricket; an insect that spends nearly its entire life underground, only coming to the surface to forage at night. So, Rachel Drew from Virginia Beach – that is what you found on your livingroom floor! Now, let me tell you a little bit about these odd – looking creatures.

Mole crickets make up the family of orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) called Gryllotalpidae. These crickets are made for digging, and if you look at them closely, their head, thorax, and front legs really do make them look just like a mole! The rest of their body looks more like a normal cricket. Their front legs are equipped with little claws which help them dig and construct their tunnels. These claws are called dactyls and their number and arrangement help scientists differentiate between certain species.

Most species have well developed wings which can carry them for about 5 miles during their mating season. They are also very good swimmers. Mole crickets are omnivores, and they will will feast on worms, insect larvae, and roots underground as well as grasses at the surface. I’m not sure which species is pictured here, but more than likely the Southern mole cricket or the tawny mole cricket. It looks as if it may be immature due to the lack of well developed wings. These two species are most common in the southern part of the country. Unfortunately, they are both introduced species and can be considered pests in some areas. These little guys are harmless, however, and for those who are lucky enough to spot one, a really great photo opportunity!

Well, thank you so much for sending in the great photo Rachel, and for reading about us in Virginia! This insect will always hold a special place in my heart as one of the weirdest looking things I’ve seen! As always, Happy bug watching!

Want to learn more about insects? Keep reading.
Check out an insect that spends the summer singing.
Costa Rica: bug geek paradise.
Mantis maaaaadness!

Photo from US: Insect Identification

cicada

Yes! This week, the title “Insect Identification” is really an accurate title. One of our own, Chris Flis, took this awesome photo out at the HMNS paleological dig site in Seymour, Texas, where our team is working hard to uncover new bones and fossils. This is our first insect submittal and I’m very excited because this is one incredible insect.
This is an insect that you rarely see, but find traces of them everywhere. During the warm months of the year, people all over the country come accross peculiar shells which look like bugs, but appear to be empty. As a kid, I would find these all over my grandparents heavily wooded backyard and I loved to scare my brother and sister with them. I would call them, along with about 99.9% of the population, locust shells. It was not until I studied insects in college that I discovered that locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these shells I was seeing everywhere belonged to a bizarre little bug called a cicada. In this photograph, you can see the actual adult cicada clinging to its old shell, or exoskeleton. It is probably waiting for it’s new skin to completely harden so it can roam the forest in search of a mate.

Cicadas are insects belonging to the order Homoptera, an order containing mostly plant pests such as aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, and whiteflies. Cicadas themselves do very little damage to plants and are not considered pests. They have simple or gradual metamorphosis, meaning they have only three different life stages: egg, nymph, adult. The nymphs spend their time underground sucking fluids from roots of trees. When it is time for them to become an adult, they tunnel their way out of the earth, attach themselves to the bark or branch of a tree, and molt for the final time. The adult that emerges looks almost identical to the nymph, only larger with big beautiful wings. This always happens at night, so we don’t see the adult, just the skin they leave behind which is perfectly preserved and very crunchy. The adult males are capable of producing sound from their abdomen which they use to track down a mate. Cicadas are active during the daytime, so that VERY loud hissing sound you hear during the hottest hours of the day are lonely male cicadas. At night, we are serenaded by nocturnal crickets, katydids, and of course, frogs. There are around 3000 species of cicada, each producing a unique sound. You can click here to listen to some different cicada songs as well as some katydids and crickets. Most cicadas have a pretty long lifespan, remaining underground as a nymph anywhere from one to three years. These are known as annual cicadas and can be seen every year. This one in Chris’s picture is an annual cicada.

Now why do I say these are such incredible insects? You may have heard of a periodical cicada. These cicadas belong to the genus Magicicada which contains only seven species. There are two types of periodical cicadas; 13 year and 17 year cicadas. This means that these guys spend either 13 or 17 years as a nymph, underground sucking on roots, which is incredible. Not only do they live for an unbelieveble amount of time, their emergences are synchronized, creating one of natures greatest phenomenons. When an emergence takes place, millions of cicadas come out of the ground for several weeks providing food for hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and other arthropods. These animals feast on cicadas until their bellies are about to pop, but they don’t even put a dent in the cicada population. So many of them die that the forest floor is covered by several inches of decomposing cicada bodies, giving the trees a tremendous dose of fertilizer that can only come from such an incredible event. This spectacle of nature can be seen in my favorite program ever, the Planet Earth series (the Seasonal Forests episode). These periodical cicadas look much different from the usual annual cicadas. They have a black body, red eyes, and orange veins in their wings. This website has a lot of great information about periodical cicadas, including an emergence chart which shows when certain broods will emerge next.

Thanks so much for sending in this picture Chris, it spurred such an interesting topic. I hope I’ve cleared up ya’lls misconceptions about cicadas and I hope you find them as amazing as I do.

Adult Cicada

Creative Commons License photo credit: trekkyandy
A Periodical Cicada

Science Labs and Outreach Programs

It is the end of the school year for us and it has been a very busy April and May. Chris and I finished our last science lab classes in April and now we are doing nonstop outreach programs!

In Chris’ Biology Lab, she taught Fungus Among Us, where 5th-8th graders learn about molds, mushrooms & yeast with hands-on activities.  They learned about different types of fungi, dissected a mushroom, and experimented with yeast.

Carbon Dioxide releasing from yeast

Yeast Balloon Experiment

Chris says that no matter how hopeful you are or how much sugar you add, the balloon wouldn’t levitate the bottle or spontaneously blow off.

In my Wildlife Lab, I taught Bugs in Balance.  The K-8th graders learned what “ingredients” make an insect, and their life cycles, and then got a chance to meet live insects up close and personal. 

We started out by learning that bugs mean different things for different people–usually, the term “bug” refers to small, creepy, crawlies like insects, spiders, millipedes, & scorpions.  Many people aren’t aware that there is an order of insects called Hemiptera, known as the “true bugs.” 

After talking about the true bugs, we focused on insects in general.  We came up with a recipe for creating an insect that included the following ingredients: 6 legs, 3 body parts, 2 antennae, an exoskeleton, and wings optional!  We examined the Madagascar Hissing Cockroach as an example of a wingless insect.  They also met up with a Giant Malaysian Katydid, a beautiful green relative of crickets and grasshoppers.

Katydid (Orthoptera Tettigoniidae 5x7) _emailable 7825
Creative Commons License photo credit: fireflies604

We looked at the life cycle of the butterfly and compared it to that of the cricket.  Butterflies go through a complete metamorphosis that includes 4 stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult.  The cricket only has three stages called incomplete metamorphosis: egg, nymph, and adult.

To learn about the balance of insects in our environment, we talked about how they can be both helpful and harmul to humans.  The younger classes created a beehive mobile to remind us of how important honey bees are as pollinators in our society and about Colony Collapse Disorder.  The older classes built a mosquito out of pipettes, pipe cleaners, & bobby pins as we talked about how this insect can be a carrier of diseases such as Malaria and West Nile Virus.

It’s time to take a break from our classes as we close out the school year with 3-5 outreach programs a week.  This keeps us very busy!  We must prepare ahead of time to ensure we have all of the proper specimens (e.g. stuffed bobcat, echidna, shark jaws) and that the live animals are ready to go.  We must arrive early to load up our van and attempt traffic to get to the school on time.  Once we arrive, we set up our specimens on the table and mentally prepare which animals will we show in which order.  We normally take 6-8 live animals and do 25-45 minute presentations.  We see thousands of elementary students a year and answer quite the assortment of questions including “Is it real?” and “Where’s its head?”

Wildlife on Wheels

Chris displaying a rabbit for our Texas Wildlife program

As you can see, our animals keep very busy as educational ambassadors which in turn keeps us very busy caring for them.  I hope you have enjoyed this brief look into our lives here at the Museum.  We look forward to sharing with you our upcoming Creature Feature: The Mysterious Matamata.