For almost 60 years, scientists thought that Melanoplus foxi Hebard, 1923, a flightless grasshopper endemic to Georgia, was possibly extinct until Ph.D. student Derek Woller and Assistant Research Professor JoVonn Hill at Mississippi State University recently re-discovered the species in May of 2015 after nine years of active searching.
Woller became aware of the species in the first place because, for his dissertation, he is examining the evolutionary history of the 24 species that make up the Puer Group (Acrididae: Melanoplinae), which includes M. foxi. He said that inroads towards finally rediscovering the species came about when he needed to collect fresh specimens to extract DNA from in order to finish reconstructing a phylogenetic tree for the group.
Members of the Puer Group are very small and have tiny wings, but are flightless. The grasshoppers are mainly located in the southeastern United States and are associated with xeric habitats, which are habitats that lack moisture.
“There are many reasons why this species flew under the radar for so long, the primary reason being that they are quite difficult to find unless you’re actively looking for them. But, habitat degradation also played a significant role,” Woller said.
According to the publication, much of Georgia’s habitat has been changed from historically large areas of longleaf pine forests to mostly agricultural and urban landscapes, which has possibly led to the decline of the species over the years.
Woller said they searched for any sign of the species at more than 101 unique sites across Georgia with no luck, including four that contained M. foxi in the past according to the locality data from museum specimens.
Additionally, prior to its rediscovery, only four U.S. collections (University of Michigan Museum of Zoology’s Insect Division, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, the Florida State Collection of Arthropods, and the North Carolina State University Insect Museum) possessed specimens of the species, and only 35 specimens in total.
During his dissertation research, Woller discovered that there were actually 71 more specimens of M. foxi hidden away in a drawer of unidentified grasshoppers in Michigan’s museum collection. The locality data on the specimens were linked to the field notes of three scientists from Michigan who collected grasshoppers, along with many other insects, in Georgia in the fifties.
Woller said most of the detailed notes described all new locations to search in within a single county in Georgia near the Spring Creek area, but he and Hill had a difficult time relating these locations with modern-day maps.
However, the breakthrough came when a historical map loaned from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources helped them translate the original sites into modern locations. The dates on the notes also suggested that searching within June and July might yield the best results.
Once they knew where to look specifically and when, they headed into the field in May of 2015 and were finally successful, finding many nymphs and a few young adults.
“As it turns out, the main reason this species is so hard to find is that it appears to be mainly active in late spring and summer, and then it dies out quickly,” Woller said. “This is an excellent reason why it pays to try to understand the life history of organisms of interest and why it’s important to have good specimen representation of a species in a museum.”
The new label data from the museum specimens and field notes led to two other re-discoveries, both further northeast from the first point of rediscovery (and on the same trip): one within a state park and one in roadside habitat that was seemingly left untouched for almost 60 years.
“Other difficult-to-find and possibly-extinct species benefit from a success such as ours because, first and foremost, it brings hope for more successes,” Woller said. “Also, our rediscovery truly demonstrates the importance of museum specimens and their associated field locality data because, without them, we may have been still out there searching for M. foxi, just like the classic needle in a haystack.”
The publication can be found at the ResearchGate website at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292722433_Melanoplus_foxi_Hebard_1923_Orthoptera_Acrididae_Melanoplinae_Rediscovered_After_Almost_60_Years_Using_Historical_Field_Notes_Connected_to_Curated_Specimens