By Derek A. Woller
On May 12, 2015, JoVonn G. Hill and I fulfilled an eight-year-long odyssey to locate a grasshopper species endemic to the sandhills of the state of Georgia, and the entire saga was recently published in Transactions of the American Entomological Society. Not seen for almost 60 years, Melanoplus foxi is small and flightless (although it does possess very small wings), belongs to the grasshopper family Acrididae, and is further identified as a member of the Puer Group, a collection of 24 Melanoplus species that look similar, reside in the southeastern U.S. (particularly Florida), and are associated with xeric habitats.
There are many reasons why this species flew under the radar for so long, the primary one being that these types of grasshoppers are quite difficult to find unless you’re actively looking for them, but habitat degradation also played a significant role. Much of the landscape of Georgia has been heavily transformed from what were historically huge swaths of longleaf pine forests into agricultural land and human habitations. The journey to find this species in the wild once more was circuitous and involved museum specimens and their locality data, digitized field notes, assistance from many helpful people, and a dash of luck.
Why Did We Look for It?
I had visited Georgia multiple times to collect a few species because I needed their fresh DNA to reconstruct an evolutionary tree, the backbone of my project. That was my specific reason for needing a newly-collected specimen of M. foxi. I had already tried extracting DNA from a museum specimen, but such a procedure can be prone to failure, and this case was no exception.
The Search Starts in the Musuem
To the best of our knowledge, prior to 2015 only 35 specimens of M. foxi were known to science and they all reside in four U.S. insect collections. Out of these, the most recent specimen was from 1938. The locality data from these preserved specimens and the original species descriptions greatly influenced our search patterns, and we took trips to the areas mentioned.
Collectively, we visited 101 unique sites — sometimes more than once and at different times of the year — that seemingly do not contain M. foxi. In our recent publication, JoVonn and I included this “absence data,” something that is not done often because it can be time-consuming and difficult to say that a species is not found in a given place. However, we felt such information might be useful for future explorers of Georgia’s habitats.
Based on this extensive hunting and our combined expertise in collecting these types of cryptic grasshoppers, we were gearing up to publish a scientific note declaring the species as possibly being extinct when we received the clues that cracked the case wide open! In early 2015, I was examining unidentified, flightless Melanoplus specimens from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Insect Division and made a significant discovery: 71 more specimens of M. foxi! The most recent one dated back to 1956, and all of them had been collected by three collectors who were based at the Michigan collection. They kept detailed field notes, all of which has been recently digitized for public consumption, and the best news of all was that the field notes could be easily tied to individual specimens because the collectors had placed unique code numbers on the locality labels of the specimens.
Into the Field…
Once we had both halves of the lock, we assembled it to find that we lacked a specific key to unlock the majority of the locations and find them in the modern world. The collectors used detailed “District/Lot” numbers that are no longer in use in that particular area of Georgia. Luckily, JoVonn called in a favor from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and they sent us a historical map from 1825 of the county in question that contained the numbered properties, which we were able to overlay onto a modern map. In addition to being the place in which we first rediscovered M. foxi, this area — known locally today as Spring Creek — had also been visited by us on numerous trips in the past with no sign of the species. In fact, during an October, 2014 trip, a field assistant and I actually searched in the same exact location (Seminole State Park) in which JoVonn and I ended up finding M. foxi in May 2015. The reason, it turns out, is that this species appears to be mainly active in late spring and summer, and then it dies out. This is an excellent reason why it pays to try to understand the life history of organisms of interest.
The linked specimen label data and field notes also led us to two other Georgia locations, much further northwest of the first, where we managed to uncover two more thriving populations of M. foxi. Out of the three locations now known, two are within state parks and are protected, and the last is just outside of a state park and has probably been left alone since the 1950s at least, which bodes well for the future.
At its heart, this is a tale of the power of data gleaned from collected insect specimens and what it can be used for: (re)discovery, conservation, and phenological information, not to mention the utility of digitizing items often contained within insect collections beyond the specimens themselves, such as field notebooks. Without the combination of the specimens and their associated labels, and the field notes that are forever linked to those specimens via a coding system, M. foxi may never have been found and would have been declared to be potentially extinct. Thankfully, this is not the case, particularly because grasshoppers that are flightless have been posited as being potential indicator species of endemism.
Put another way, wherever one of these types of intriguing hoppers is found, there are probably other unique creatures and plants around because of their often-strong association with habitats that are notoriously difficult to live in for a variety of ecological reasons. Furthermore, the composition of grasshopper species in a given habitat can also tell you much about the ecology of the area because they are mainly herbivores, often with particular plant preferences. As it seems that M. foxi has close ties with sandhills habitats, this suggests that its continued presence in at least three areas of Georgia indicates that these specific sandhills are doing well, which is strongly encouraging for biodiversity in Georgia and for the continued existence of the species.
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Derek A. Woller is a PhD candidate in the Song Lab of Insect Systematics and Evolution at Texas A&M University. His research is focused on attempting to better comprehend the speciation process in a fascinating group of scrub-lovin’ grasshoppers confined to xeric habitats in the southeastern U.S. He has aspirations of working as a curator or collections manager in a museum someday. Until then, in his spare time (of which he typically has none), he makes videos like these and enjoys doing outreach events with the public.