The Holy Grail of katydids

February 19, 2014 • 5:53 am

Piotr Naskrecki’s website, The Smaller Majority, is a treasure trove of natural history and photography, especially when they concern insects.  Naskrecki has lately been in Mozambique, and recently describes finding what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful katydid—and one of the rarest. It’s Pardolata reimeri, and information about it is thin. (Katydids, you might recall, are in the order Orthoptera along with crickets and grasshoppers, but are in their own family, the Tettigoniidae.)

Naskrecki recounts his delight and dismay when seeing one of these things, which looks like a piece of modern art with graffiti on it (his “dismay” was due to his lack of collecting equipment). His narrative, below, is indented. (Note: all photos copyrighted by Naskrecki and reproduced with permission.)

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Pardalota reimeri, probably the most colorful and one of the rarest katydids in the world. The individuals I observed in Quirimbas are the first record of this species in 103 years.

The katydids were calling from high in the trees and I was afraid that I would not be able to catch, or even see them. But then one flew down from the canopy and landed right in front of me. When I saw what it was, my heart skipped a beat – it was Pardalota reimeri, the Holy Grail for katydid aficionados (there are a few of us out there). This species had been known only from the original type series, described in 1911 and preserved in a museum in Berlin. What is special about this species is that even those old, dried husks retained vivid, crazy colors, unlike those of any other known katydid species. And colors as awesome as this indicate an equally awesome biology.

Here’s one of those “old, dried husks” from a museum in Stockholm, taken from OSF online:

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I caught the katydid and he immediately went into a defensive mode: he opened his bright purple, black and white wings, and exposed his neon-orange abdomen and cervical membrane; he lifted his hind legs that had yellow and black markings, remarkably similar to those of toxic chrysomelid beetles. This was either a daring bluff, or this thing was seriously poisonous. All around me other males continued to sing.

The site has a video showing the defensive posture, but here’s what it looks like:

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A defensive display of Pardalota reimeri – these katydids feed on highly toxic plants and is likely that their bodies are loaded with poisonous alkaloids.

Naskrecki theorizes that the coloration is aposematic—that is, “warning coloration” that lets predators know to stay away, for the insect is toxic or dangerous.

What to do? Here I was, surrounded by a remarkable entomological discovery, but with no way to collect, preserve, or record it. I decided to exploit Harith’s students and we fanned out looking for the insects. Soon we discovered where they sang – they were only calling from, and feeding on, two species of trees, both known to produce potent chemical defenses, including some powerful psychoactive alkaloids. This almost certainly explained their aposematic coloration. We also found nymphs of this species, which turned out to be incredibly hairy. In fact, when I first saw one I thought I was looking at a fuzzy caterpillar feeding on a toxic plant – its movements were an uncanny imitation of the front end of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, even though I was looking at at the katydid’s butt. It wasn’t shocking then when a minute later I noticed very similar looking caterpillars feeding on the same plant and, also on the same plant, tiger moths (well known to be toxic) wearing colors very similar to those of the katydids’. Having nothing else at my disposal I pointed my Canon 6D at the canopy and used its video recording feature to record the sound of the singing males. I collected as many individuals as I could, stuffing them into Ziplock bags, hoping to be able to get decent photos and proper sound recordings later on.

What a lovely beast!:

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A female P. reimeri cleaning her foot.

h/t: Piotr, Matthew Cobb

29 thoughts on “The Holy Grail of katydids

  1. Could those be katydid kanji characters on the wings? Let’s see if we can translate…

    There probably is no Supreme Katydid. Stop worrying and enjoy your life!

    1. Sounds like my current project with box turtle glyphs and Graphid lichens (other sources of natural “writing”).

      In the katydid’s case, I think it says “Don’t eat me!”

      I love these great photos of the live insects. Look how much more beauty and information they offer than the pinned bug-in-a-box.

    1. Mark, no, the specimens were not released, they were preserved to study their morphology and genes. The population in Quirimbas was very healthy, probably in the order of hundreds of thousands of individuals. It is also likely that the species is widely distributed in that region, it is just that entomologists have never been there. Also, collecting a few insect specimens has absolute zero effect on the population – some estimates say that on average, birds kill 10% of the world insect population EVERY DAY, and it is safe to say that human activity (e.g., driving cars at night) eliminates similar numbers. Collecting is never a threat, it is the habitat loss. I know of no case where insect collecting made a significant impact on the survival of a species. If you can collect something to extinction that means that the species is already doomed for other reasons.

      1. I was wondering the same, so thanks for that.

        I guess that as humans we are so used to read about “very rare” species when referring to mammals, where it means only several dozen remaining, that it is difficult to shift to insects where “rarest in the world” still means millions of individuals!

  2. “It wasn’t shocking then when a minute later I noticed very similar looking caterpillars feeding on the same plant and, also on the same plant, tiger moths (well known to be toxic) wearing colors very similar to those of the katydids’.”

    Can I get a “Darwin!” 🙂

  3. What a phenomenal find! It’s truly a jeweled beauty. Congrats to Piotr.

    So, not sure if he managed to catch any of the adult katydids, or just the nymphs. If the latter, maybe he can nurture them to adulthood. I hope he collected some of the leaves they like. We did that at home with Monarch butterflies and their smelly caterpillars. Had to grow my own dill too, to feed them.

  4. But what was the song like? From the katydid’s perspective, that’s more important than the colorful appearance!

      1. Thanks — can’t wait! So does low frequency mean along the lines of a cricket??
        (In case anyone is interested, many katydids have calls with ultrasonic elements.)

        1. The energy peak is around 9-10 kHz – higher than in crickets but much lower than in most katydids. The call is not frequency modulated and thus does not have the cricket-like musical quality, but it is quite complex in its temporal pattern.

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