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127 A Few Thoughts about Aesop’s Favorite Loafer By late summer, insect appetites can leave even lightly grazed, wellwatered grassland in tatters.A walk through waist-high grasses results in an orthopteran eruption as grasshoppers clinging to plant stems— stridulating, hopping, sailing, and chewing away like tiny lawn mowers —present themselves in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. Close inspection of ragged leaves on various forbs and grasses reveals that the insects have consumed enough plant material to play a prominent role in shaping their environment, a task they have taken seriously since as far back in history as the Carboniferous period. Grasshoppers can eat as much as half their weight in plant material daily. And in a hot, sunny, and maybe just a little extra-dry grassland, there can be an amazing number of grasshoppers. The 1950s, a time of drought throughout the southern prairies, seemed to produce more grasshoppers than grass. The landscape snapped, crackled, and popped with grasshoppers as the insects bounded away at every step. As kids we walked to our favorite creek banks or fishing ponds, catching grasshoppers for bait along the way. Thetaskwasaseasyaspickingripefruit,andallthewhilewecautioned each other not to let our captives “spit tobacco juice” as they struggled. The insects actually did an ample amount of spewing a brown liquid 128 A Few Thoughts about Aesop’s Favorite Loafer that folklore claimed to be tobacco juice. This defensive act, an attempt to persuade predators to release the grasshoppers in favor of a more appetizing snack, did little to save them from being impaled on a fishhook . Overall, grasshoppers tend to become prey more often than not. Considering just the numbers of prairie birds that nourish themselves and their nestlings on grasshoppers, it would appear that the best survival mechanism available to the grasshopper clan, other than spit, is their ability to reproduce in incredible numbers. According to the FieldGuidetoGrasshoppers,Katydids,andCricketsofthe UnitedStates,grasshoppersbelongtotheorderOrthoptera,agroupthat also includes crickets and katydids. Orthoptera translates to “straight wings,” but some believe that the order would be better named for the insects’ massive thighs and the jumping prowess such well-developed thighs enable. A field biologist once postulated that if a grasshopper was as large as a human being, the distance covered during an average leap would be around the length of a football field. There are thousands of species of grasshoppers around the world, and most are generalists in their dining habits. Some prefer grass, some prefer broad-leaved plants, but very few dine on only a single species of anything. Such blue-collar tastes contribute to healthy populations that tend to outbreak at times with devastating results. Generally ,however,grasshoppers remain a successful species by not eating themselves out of existence, good news for all the species (including some tribes of Homosapiens) that depend upon the 50 to 75 percent protein that their carcasses provide. A grassland bereft of grasshoppers would be a very hungry place for prairie-chickens, turkey, quail, and meadowlarks, plus all the other species that raise nestlings to maturity on this nutritious food source. Back in the not-so-good old days, enormous aggregations of grasshoppers sometimes assembled, took on certain physical characteristics that would allow for mass migration, then launched an overland odyssey that laid waste to most anything chewable that lay in the ravenous assemblage’s path. These clouds of migratory grasshoppers, numbering in the billions, maybe trillions, were known as locusts. Probably the most famous locust swarm was the biblical horde that helped Moses and his tribe part company with an Egyptian pharaoh in Old Testament times. Closer to home and as recently as 1875, the dreaded Rocky Mountain locust ate its way across the American heartland in swarms that were 129 A Few Thoughts about Aesop’s Favorite Loafer estimated to be 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide. In terms of square miles, this eruption devastated a swath of land larger than the state of California. Considering that these swarms were basically a solid mass of insects that blocked out the sun as they migrated, the 1875 outbreak contained an almost inconceivable amount of insect appetites. They ate crops,grass,the paint off barns.Women who covered their gardens with blankets watched in horror as the grasshoppers ate the blankets on their way to consuming the tender plants beneath. Laura Ingalls Wilder in On the Banks of Plum Creek described a locust swarm thusly: “The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid...


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