From Petticoat to Ball Gown

A tree cricket, clinging to the side of a house, nears the end of her final molt.

The insect looked all wrong.

It had bitty wings on a loooong body. Too many legs. And a big, see-through something that looked like a tail. I leaned in for a closer look.

A tree cricket was molting.

What I’d taken for extra legs and a translucent tail was the critter’s exoskeleton. Its wings were tiny because they were still tightly folded. I grabbed my phone in time to film the cricket’s last few wriggles. Four minutes later, she shed the last of her prior self.  Then her wings unfurled. That show was mesmerizing and quite beautiful.

Here she is finishing her molt, played at 4 times normal speed.

Now watch as she unfurls her wings; six minutes played here at 50x speed.

Here she is a few minutes later, wings fully open:

A tree cricket's newly-molted wings are fully open as it crawls toward its shed exoskeleton
A tree cricket just after unfurling its wings

I think she looks like a princess who changed from her petticoat to a ball gown. All dressed up for dinner… her exoskeleton! I watched as she consumed every bit.  That’s when I noticed something was not quite right. Take a moment to study this photo. Can you tell what’s missing?

A newly-molted tree cricket clings to the side of a house. It is missing its left-rear leg.It
This tree cricket lacks an important part of its anatomy.

The princess is missing a jumping leg! I studied all my images and videos, looking for signs it’s folded beneath her. But it’s just not there.

When I reviewed all twenty or so videos frame by frame, I could see that on her left side, the cricket stepped and maneuvered using what should be her middle limb. So, what happened to her left jumping leg?

I’m guessing it just didn’t form with her prior molt. There’s no sign of a torn-off leg when I magnify images of the exoskeleton. And take a look at this photo:

A tree cricket eats its exoskeleton. The cricket has just five legs, missing the lower-left limb.
Eating the exoskeleton, and clearly missing a leg.

Under her left leg (which would normally be the middle one), there’s a little button-like bump. On magnification, it looks like a donut. Could that be a leg joint? I suspect so.

After finishing her meal, the cricket scurried away, probably to escape my hovering. Crickets crawl or leap for most locomotion, and I was surprised at how quickly she moved despite the missing leg. Jumping, however, would seem to be a challenge. I suspect she was ill-equipped to escape predators.

So, exactly who was this cricket princess? The curved black marks at the very base of her antennae tell that part of the story. They’re found on Oecanthus niveus, the narrow-winged tree cricket. Here’s a close-up showing the marks.

A tree cricket eating its exoskeleton, with a close-up view of curved spots at the base of her antennae.
Curved marks at the base of the antennae identify this narrow-winged tree cricket.

I know the cricket is female from her ovipositor, the tube through which she lays eggs. It’s visible in this photo:

A narrow-winged tree cricket clinging to the side of a house. It eats its exoskeleton, with its ovipositor visible.
Eating her exoskeleton, with ovipositor visible on the lower-left side

The ovipositor is on the left, near the lower end of her body, just beneath one of her two cerci. The cerci (singular cercus) are the little tail-like appendages you can see more clearly here:

A narrow-winged tree cricket clings to the side of a house, her cerci visible.
Cerci are easily visible before the cricket’s wings are fully open.

And… it wouldn’t be a story about tree crickets if I didn’t mention their music. The females don’t sing, but the males are famous for it. They rub one jagged-edged wing against the other to make their sounds. You can listen to the narrow-winged cricket’s music here.

That clip was posted by Lisa Rainsong, who’s a professional musician, educator, and naturalist. She’s also a songs expert—songs of birds, insects, and amphibians. One of her many interesting blog posts features the narrow-winged tree cricket. In it, she recounts a nighttime woods expedition to look for several crickets’ identifying antennae spots. I guess I had it pretty easy—my narrow-winged neighbor showed her spots in broad daylight, right outside my door!

A related kids book, plus references

I’ve decided to highlight kids’ books related to my blog subjects. I haven’t found a book featuring crickets, but here’s a terrific reference book for young bug explorers. The Book of Brilliant Bugs, by Jess French, illustrated by Claire McElfatrick shows how amazing insects and spiders are. The book explains the creatures’ role on our planet, too. This is a great resource to help turn bug-squeamish kids into inquisitive insect detectives. Here’s a link.

For references, I highly recommend Lisa Rainsong’s online Field Guide. It’s about listening to singing insects in northeast Ohio, but the information applies more broadly. Another interesting reference is from the University of Toronto: How Tree Crickets Tune into Each Other.  And blogger Terry Wise has a terrific article about the narrow-winged tree cricket. For help with cricket anatomy, I checked the entomology textbook I’m reading these days: Bugs Rule! by Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak. Here’s a link.

Image Credits: Carol Doeringer.

6 thoughts on “From Petticoat to Ball Gown”

  1. Carol, these tree cricket photos and videos are absolutely splendid! Thank you SO much for sharing this little miracle!

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Lisa. I had to do lots of homework to understand what I was watching. Your online resources were an invaluable help.

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