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Zombie grasshopper

Entomophaga grylli infecting a Field Grasshopper

This grasshopper has climbed to the top of a Wild Carrot stem, then hugged it tight with all six legs and waited to die. Grasshoppers never normally do that but this one was zombified by a fungus: Entomophaga grylli. Once infected, the fungus somehow made it climb and cling before killing it in a nice high spot from which it could disperse its spores. The fungus fruits from between the segments of the insect and in this photo, the fruiting is over and the fungus isn’t very obvious. But the position and pose of the grasshopper is diagnostic. And as far as I know, E. grylli is the only entomophagous fungus that infects British Orthoptera.

I saw this a lot when I was doing my PhD on Chorthippus brunneus so I’m pretty sure this is a common fungus. However, officially there are only 5 British records but I think it is just massively under-recorded: http://www.fieldmycology.net/FRDBI/FRDBIrecord.asp?intGBNum=47709

I still think this is one of the most fascinating biological interactions I’ve ever heard of. How does the fungus get the grasshopper to do that, when it is not even something in the normal behavioural repertoire of grasshoppers? Imagine if there were human infections which could change our behaviour like that …

Mediterranea and Victoriana

A miscellany from the last couple of days. Firstly a female Southern Oak Bush-cricket Meconema meridionale from south London today, one of many seen. These bush-crickets were discovered in Britain in 2001 having spread north from the Mediterranean. This is an adult, and the wings are tiny, so it clearly didn’t arrive in Britain by flight. But bush-crickets are sometimes found on parked vehicles and are amazingly good at clinging on at speed. It’s conceivable that it made it to London by just clinging on to some cross-channel traffic.

Southern Oak Bush-cricket female

I don’t normally pay much attention to spiders when I’m on a survey but this big girl certainly grabbed my attention: 13 mm long and looking like the sort of thing you’d see imported in a bunch of bananas, not under a log in London. It turns out to be Steatoda nobilis, and true enough this species “has been repeatedly introduced from the Canary Islands and Madeira with bananas”! In the Harvey, Nellist and Telfer (2002) Atlas it only has four dots in Britain but a look at the latest map from the Spider Recording Scheme shows that it has made itself firmly at home in southern England in the last decade. It is obligatory to mention that this is a species which can inflict a painful bite if suitably provoked.

Steatoda nobilis female

Finally, a beetle I could reasonably have expected never to see my whole life long: Oxytelus piceus. It lives in cow-pats and would not have been an unexpected sight to a Victorian coleopterist living in southern Britain. But the progress of the 20th century was tough on many dung-feeding beetles and by 1994 Hyman and Parsons were only aware of records since 1970 from West Norfolk and Monmouthshire, and made it a Red Data Book species. In a cursory search, I’ve not been able to find any other records from recent decades. It wouldn’t be surprising if it hasn’t been recorded in recent decades – the dung fauna is not exactly making a come-back. The specimen in the photo is one of two found at a light-trap in cattle pasture in Cambridgeshire on Wednesday night. Not for the first time, I’m thinking why don’t I go out on mothing nights more often. The beetles can be really interesting (and it is certainly more fun than poking through cow-pats).

Oxytelus piceus male. Apical abdominal segments flipped to show the diagnostic coupling apparatus. Identifiable from the non-crenulate pronotal margins, constricted 1st antennal segment and large eyes.