Georgia is rich in grasshopper species

My friend Hank Ohme with the Georgia Wildlife Federation sent me a photo the other day of a lichen grasshopper that he had taken at Stone Mountain Park. It piqued my curiosity, and I quickly found myself immersed in grasshopper lore.

I was only vaguely familiar with the lichen grasshopper, so I looked it up in a favorite book, “The Natural Communities of Georgia.” The lichen, or rock, grasshopper, it said, is a slow-moving creature that exists in small, isolated populations — mostly on rock outcrops — in Georgia and other Southeastern states. Its coloration — pink, brown, green or light gray with dark brown or black splotches — makes it well-camouflaged for existence on lichen-covered rocks.

To learn more about other grasshoppers in Georgia, I contacted JoVonn Hill at Mississippi State University, a leading expert on grasshoppers in the Southeast. I was amazed by how many grasshopper species — 90 — he lists as occurring in Georgia. Five of them are found only in the state.

The total number, his website said, represents the second most diverse and unique group of grasshopper species in the Southeast. Only Florida, with 94 species, has more. Georgia’s grasshopper diversity, according to Hill, is due, in part, to the state’s abundant natural habitats and rich geologic history.

More grasshopper species are bound to be discovered. Last year, Hill and graduate student Derek Woller “rediscovered” a flightless grasshopper species, Melanoplus foxi, in Wheeler County and two other Georgia locations. The species had not been seen since 1923 and was thought to be extinct.

A few years ago, Hill found a previously unknown grasshopper in Georgia’s Sand Hills Wildlife Management Area in Taylor County. It was named Melanoplus muscogee in honor of the Muscogee-speaking peoples who originally lived there.

Although some grasshopper species can severely damage crops and gardens, their ecological benefits are many. For instance, they are prime food for birds and other wildlife and help regulate plant growth and diversity in ecosystems.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be new Friday. Venus is low in the west and Mars and Saturn are in the southwest around nightfall.

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