How Katy Does It

I flushed up a Katydid the other day in my yard. The thing flew up from the grass, took a short St. Louis Arch flight, and landed under the low hanging branches of the almond tree. Yes, even though I live in S.E. Michigan, I have an almond tree but it has yet to produce anything other than leaves.  My Mango and coconut aren’t doing so hot either. Anyway, I pounced upon the critter like a large middle-aged cat and gave it the once over.

This specimen was a pointy headed variety known as a Sword-bearing Conehead. Saturday Night Live jokes aside, the name stems from two very obvious physical traits. Scientifically it is known as Neoconocephalus ensiger which means “New cone-headed sword bearer. I am not sure what the “new” part comes from, unless it pays homage to Dan Akroyd as the original – therefore old – conehead, but the cone shaped head was apparent enough. The tip of the cone itself is flattened and the slightly rounded shape is diagnostic for this species (see beginning picture).  Believe it or not, there are five cone-head species hanging around the state, so it is important to get your coneys confirmed.

Fortunately, because this “Did” was a female, the sword-bearing reference was also made abundantly clear. The cutlass blade sported by this individual was really an ovipositor, or egg laying device (see above and here). It is used to penetrate between grass leaves and convey the eggs into place.  All female crickets and katydids have these structures but none match that of the sword bearer.

I was lucky enough to come upon another species of katydid last month next to the Acacia trees in the other corner of the yard (not really, it was in a cat-tail marsh near my house). This’n was a male Angle-winged Katydid who felt it was necessary to clean his feet before leaving my filthy human hand. You’ll see (above) that it shared the vibrant green coloring of the sword-bearer. Both insects depend upon their inherent leaf-likeness to hide from predators. The conehead will even do a hand-stand in order to appear more leaf-like (see below).

So, in combination, these sightings got me thinking about another thing that all Katys do – which is sing.  They may hide and flee by the light of day but they buzz and trill by moonlight.  I believe only one species actually says “Katy-did” while all the others make a variety of noises. The coneheads conduct a constant series of “lisps” at the rate of ten per second and the angle-wings “Tick-tick-tick” their way through the night.  These sounds are made by rubbing one wing against the other and are usually performed by the males (although some females also engage in music making).

My third Katydid encounter (a close encounter of the third kind, you see) enabled me to show you what the sound producing structure actually looks like. This one was a dead individual already hollowed out by the neighborhood ants. This Katy wasn’t doing anything anymore. I was able to pluck off one of the wings and put it under the scope for some close-up shots of the structure responsible for making all that noise. As you can see (below) there is a very distinct comb like ridge along one of the horizontal wing veins.  It is about the size of the word “GOD” on a nickel (see here). An opposing ridge on the other wing is dragged along it to produce those bold percussive riffs for which the “’Dids” are so famous.

I went out into the back yard late at night to see if my female conehead , or one of her suitors, might be singing. But, Katy–didn’t show up in the soundscape. I am left secretly wondering, however, if the males of the genre resented being called “Katy” and deliberately remained mum in the presence of my recorder.  I think lady bug males have this same identity problem. If you spelled my name Geri, then I too would have reservations about speaking up in public.

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