Birdwing Grasshoppers in Belize

It is estimated that the rainforest houses over 50% of the biodiversity on Earth.  Scientists believe that there are millions of species still to be found in the rainforests.  Countries like Costa Rica have a rich history of tropical research, while other countries like Belize are still in the beginning stages.  In June 2012 members of the Mader Biology author team (Michael Windelspecht, David Cox and Eric Weber) embarked on an expedition to the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge in Belmopan, Belize. It was during a rainforest hike at the 5 Blues National Park that the team came upon  a birdwing grasshopper in a clearing near the main lake.  While initially the team did not recognize the significance of their discovery, later discussions, and a follow-up visit by one of the team members in January 2013 (during which the photo below was taken), began to suggest that the specimen was not well known in Belize.

birdwing grasshopper in Belize

birdwing grasshopper in Belize. Photo by Howler Publications – used by permission

What is interesting about this is the fact that the region that birdwing was identified is frequented by the  Lincoln Land Community College Belize Adventures program, which raises possibilities of student research and future bioblitzs in the area.

Birdwing physiology

The order Orthoptera is a widely dispersed group of insects that can be found in nearly every terrestrial environment.  This order consists of grasshoppers, crickets,  and locusts.  Key physical features include the presence of segmented bodies that are cylindrical and possess hind legs that are long, strong and adapted for jumping.  The body is divided into a head, thorax and abdomen.  The head contains sensory structures such as the eyes and antennae along with mouthparts adapted for chewing plant material.  The thorax will contain 2 pairs of wings that enable flight while the abdomen contains the digestive and reproductive organs.  Circulation is achieved through the use of an open circulatory system in which the body fluid or hemolymph fills the body cavities and appendages.  Respiration is performed using air-filled tubes called tracheae that open at the surface of the thorax and abdomen.  Spiracles are the openings that will regulate the exchange of carbon  dioxide and oxygen.

Most grasshoppers are herbivores with a few species being omnivores.  Grasses, leaves, and cereal crops are the primary food source for most species.  Digestion occurs in a three part process, the foregut, midgut, and hindgut.  The mandible starts the digestion process by chewing the food with the salivary glands adding digestive enzymes to the mixture. Orthopteriod species follow an incomplete metamorphosis life cycle.  This means that the eggs hatch into nymphs that resemble the adult form but lack the wings of the adult.

Birdwing Ecology

Giant grasshoppers within the genus Titanacris are found among various tropical environments.  Commonly referred to as birdwing grasshoppers or rainbow grasshoppers, members of this genus are unique in that they can grow to extremely large sizes.  The seven species of Titanacris tend to grow between 10 and 11 centimeters in length with a wingspan that can reach 23 centimeters.  The brilliantly colored bright red hind wings make them a spectacular sight when they take flight.  They can often be identified by the crimson anterior and bright blue basal portion or the hind wings.  Fore wings are leaf green with a serrated crest running down the entire middle. Not much, ecologically, is known about this genus except that they tend to be more common among the crowns of the trees and more active during days that are hot.

Further expeditions to obtain additional photographs on this species are currently being organized through the Lincoln Land Community College Belize Adventures program.

For more information:

article by Dave Cox, Lincoln-Land Community College. Contact Dave for more information on educational opportunities in Belize.

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