Grass stretches as far as the eye can see across the U.S. Great Plains, and more than 100 species of grasshoppers live in the swaying fronds. But one plains-dwelling grasshopper species prefers trees to grass, as a discovery at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site shows.
A Kansas student from Fort Riley Middle School collected the first specimen while participating in Konza's LTER schoolyard project. According to Valerie Wright, Konza's education coordinator, the specimen wasn't recognized at first to be a new species to inhabit the Konza Prairie.
Konza scientist Ted Hopkins later identified the rare, tree-dwelling creature as the grizzly spur-throat grasshopper.
"LTER schoolyard projects provide wonderful opportunities for students of all ages to become involved in the excitement of science," said Henry Gholz, LTER program director at NSF. "Often, in cases such as this, students are responsible for collecting valuable field data and increasing our knowledge of the natural world."
Melanoplus punctualatus, as the grasshopper is known to scientists, was first identified in the United States in 1862. It's usually found in eastern hardwood forests and in the pine forests of the southeast. The species had been reported only twice in Kansas.
"Its discovery on Konza is a big surprise," Hopkins said.
He discovered two of the unusual grasshoppers basking in the sun on the wall of an old house located on the Konza site. Wright, who is also an entomologist, later found five more on tree trunks near the house.
The grasshopper is a large, slow-moving insect, Hopkins said, "and given its protective coloration--medium-gray speckled with dark dots, sometimes with yellowish and whitish areas--it disappears against lichen-covered tree bark."
Hopkins thinks the Konza Prairie grasshoppers are found only along wooded areas near creeks. He is continuing his research near trees where the grasshoppers have been seen, watching for tiny first-stage insects that hatch from eggs and trying to collect enough adults to determine their feeding habits.
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