Cochise County Insects: The Horse Lubber Grasshopper

“Whoa!”  I called out to Pam. Cochise County wildlife had struck again in the form of the horse lubber grasshopper, Taeniopoda Eques, aka the Mexican general.  “This is the biggest, ugliest grasshopper I’ve ever seen in my life!”

And it was.  Massive, three or so inches in length, jet black with bright yellow racing stripes and lacy green wings.

Almost made me gag just looking at it.

That was in August of 2009, our first summer on this acreage.  This transplanted Montana cowboy was used to diamondback rattlesnakes, but the Arizona desert southwest still held a few surprises.  The Mojave green rattlesnake, for one, my first encounter with one of those being still a few weeks in the future.

Man, that had to be  the grandaddy of all plug-ugly grasshoppers.

Now, three years later, I’ve gotten used to them.  They no longer push my hurl reflex.  But I still wouldn’t want my sister to marry one.

One big, homely horse lubber grasshopper.

It turns out the Mexican general (which sounds a lot cooler than horse lubber) is not only big and has a face not even its mother could love, but it’s also a cannibal.  If this merciless six-legged comes across one of its own kind that happens to be vulnerable while molting, no problem–the non-molting hopper simply eats its molting brother.  Or sister.

Probably not its mother, though.  Mom’s already dead.  Kicked off when the November freeze hit last year after depositing your ungrateful little egg along with 50 or so more in a protective pod under the soil’s surface.  So at least you’re not a mother-eater.

Nor, it turns out, do you eat the plants on which you perch at night.  Which is good, since these photos were taken at dusk and show a few of the mob of horse lubbers sprinkled atop one of our favorite little mesquite trees just 15 feet north of the Border Fort.

In the morning, you crawl your lubberly way down to the ground and go foraging elsewhere.  Good for you.

Lubber?  Turns out it basically means these great ungainly things can’t fly.  Their wings are too puny to lift those wide-load bodies.  Except for a few here and there that can fly.

Which explains the occasional crimson underflash from the hind wings.  Seen those a few times, but not often.  Mostly, these guys could no more take evasive action to escape a predator than a 300 lb. fat man could with an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault.

Did I mention they’re ugly?

Did I mention they’re UGLY?

So, how do they survive as a species, being so easy to catch?

Simple:  Chemical warfare.  If a predator comes on the attack, the horse lubber grasshopper hisses a cloud of nasty-gas all over the enemy.  If a predator actually ingests one of these toxin-producing bioforms, the eater will vomit and may die.

Which is the apparent reason for all those yellow racing stripes.  They serve as a warning to back off, buster!

Just read about that a few hours ago.  Makes me glad I’ve not tried to pick one up.  No chance I’d be tempted to swallow one, not even to win on the Survivor reality TV show, but even a fistful of smelly gas would be enough to make a fellow feel a touch foolish.

I’ve seen in-season scat from both coyotes and javelinas that showed a lot of grasshopper munching going on, but the chemical deterrent makes it likely the horse lubbers are seldom included.

A molting horse lubber grasshopper. Once the molt is complete, the coloring will turn back to basic black (with yellow stripes, green lacy wings, etc.) within a couple of hours.

Until scientific horse lubber grasshopper sites taught me better, I’d thought the molting versions (as in the above photo) were actually members of a different species.  Turns out the average fully adult Mexican general had to go through five or six molts to get that way…and that sometimes an individual will get “stuck” in one particular exoskeleton along the way and be unable to molt beyond that point.

So…is the Mexican general that gets stuck “one molt short” properly called a Mexican colonel?  Or, if one is sticking to the horse lubber terminology, a pony lubber?

Hm….

I’ve not yet noticed any of the double decker horse lubbers this year, so don’t have any photos of those at the moment.  Maybe later.

Turns out mating between genders is pretty…active.  The male sneaks up on the female, jumps on her back, and she goes nuts trying to get rid of him.  But once she’s been had, she more or less says, “Oh, what the heck,” and calmly carries him around on her back for however long he chooses to stay up there, sometimes as long as 24 hours while he keeps on passing on whatever boy grasshoppers pass on to the girls.

We knew those double decker arrangements (double ugly!) indicated mating but did not know it meant they’d already done the deed and were just doing the grasshopper piggyback version of cuddling.

Or something.

By photo flash, two horse lubber grasshoppers (lower left, upper right) and one orange caterpillar (upper center, slightly right).

The homely mugs of the horse lubbers no longer bother me much.  After all, my wife and I’ve made friends out here with wolf spiders, tarantulas, and turkey vultures.

Why pick on the Mexican general?

Besides, the  species is  a reliable and welcome indicator of the coming change of seasons.  When the horse lubbers show up, we know the monsoon rains will soon be timing out, the humidity will drop, and those &%^!! chiggers will once again go inactive till next summer.

UPDATE:  September 29, 2012

Pam just noticed a whole mob of boy horse lubbers outside, each doing his best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) to mount a girl hopper.  I missed getting a photo of the mounted pair–no, she wasn’t happy about it yet–because another guy came along and knocked the early winner off his perch.

Wanted some of that for himself, obviously.

The pheromones that particular girl grasshopper is putting out must be powerful indeed…because within seconds, there was a whole train of presumably guy (or else lesbian) horse lubber hoppers trailing after the female.

Moral of the story:  If you ever have to reincarnate as a horse lubber grasshopper, at least try for the male form.  Being a female of that species just doesn’t look like that much fun.

A-mating we will go, a-mating we will go, heigh-ho, the desert-o, a-mating we will go!

We feed our local wild rabbits out in that area…along with whatever else comes along.  Right now, most of what we put in the food bowls or drop on the ground is consumed by a swarm of horse lubbers, sometimes with hoppers of other species joining in.  This, morning, Pam realized it was time to get rid of a sizeable cucumber we’d neglected to consume before it started going soft, so she fed it to the hoppers.

The results were remarkable.  It took the big insects less than an hour to make serious inroads on the cuke.  It’s enough to make a person understand how completely an overgrowth of grasshoppers can devastate a farmer’s crop and why the use of pesticides is often a necessity, not a luxury.

Horse lubbers and a few other grasshoppers attack a cucumber feast.

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