by Elizabeth Bernays
1. He Hatches
Inside the egg the baby grasshopper is finally ready. His head is wrinkled and small, his body is soft and white. He squeezes up his back end and pushed out his middle section to put pressure on the egg shell. He has to repeat the action a few times before the shell splits and he can wriggle out, looking like a little white worm. He rests. He still has a way to go because he is below ground.
He has to go upwards for several inches to reach the surface of the soil. But upwards is the path of least resistance because his mother deposited a frothy material like beaten egg white after she laid the eggs. This turned to the consistency of cooked meringue but it lasted all through the winter. Not that you can see it on the surface, because mother grasshopper was careful to hide it with a thin layer of dirt scraped over the top.
The baby grasshopper now out of his shell, still has a thin tough membrane over him. It surrounds all his parts with small glove-like extensions. It is tight over his head, keeping it small and wrinkled with his chin pointing backwards. His front end is thus made pointed, which he needs, because he has to work upwards through the meringue. He makes an upward movement with his pointed head. Then he pushes out two cone-shaped lumps at the back of his neck to get a lump-hold in the meringue so he can pull up his body and legs. Then he retracts the lumps and repeats the process. It can take twenty minutes of hard work to get to the surface.
He knows immediately when he gets there. Not because of the light and air but because of the lack of pressure all around him—tiny hairs under his membrane are no longer pushed down flat by surrounding soil or meringue. This triggers a new movement. He wriggles in such a way that the membrane becomes taut at the front and folded at the back end. He has special spiny bumps at the tip of his abdomen that grab the folds each time he wriggles; the membrane becomes very taut. Finally, it splits over the back of his head and chest and he can crawl out.
At last he can swallow air, and blow himself up. With an X-ray machine you can see he is mostly air. With the pressure he unfolds all the wrinkles in his head, making it look the way a grasshopper head should look – big and bold with compound eyes and forward-pointing antennae. Only then will his cuticle turn brown and get hard. Only then will he be able to release the swallowed air, greet the world and march off to find food.
2. He Stands Tall
He stands rigid in armor plate.
Unblinking eyes of
Hundreds of angular facets
Stare out at the wide world, three hundred and sixty degrees.
He lifts his right front leg
And draws his right antenna through
The curved cleft on his foot
For cleaning thousands of microscopic hairs
That smell rain and grass and fire.
Then the left side.
He raises his head
He stands tall on his six legs
Moving antennae to the forward position
As if to say, ready.
No one knows his intentions
As he steps among the dead leaves
Over stone mountains
Between tall grasses.
The sun shines
And his step is confident.
He reaches a patch of bare ground and stops.
One long back leg stretches out and up
Then both back legs engage in a slow cycling movement
As the tips of his antennae touch the soil.
What has he noticed?
Suddenly both back legs vibrate
Making rows of tiny pegs
Scrape against the hard, front edges of his wings
And his song pierces the still-fresh air
He celebrates life and calls for love.
3. Desert Clickers
If you walk in the Sonoran Desert in the heat of a summer day, you hear click-click, click-click, click-click. The sound is part of the place, the courtship song of a small gray grasshopper that lives in creosote bushes. The males of Ligurotettiix coquilletti are attracting females with a monotonous day-long clicking. Seeing them, though, can be difficult, because they are wonderfully like the creosote stems and if you get too close they swivel round to the other side of the stem and remain completely out of sight. It takes two people! Perhaps a small gray grasshopper that makes a monotonous clicking sound for hours on end seems rather a dull creature, but it is worth a second look.
In any patch of creosote bushes, the first male to reach adulthood looks about, tastes different creosote bushes, and then selects the best one. It will be the best for his health and that of any females he attracts. It becomes his territory: a territory he will defend from rival males. In any case, finders keepers. Because he is first, he becomes aggressive and he clicks loudly. Late developers dare not sing so loudly, and hesitate to come into his bush. Indeed top dog’s vocal feats ensure that the latecomer lowers his voice. He is subordinate. He must make his principal home on an inferior bush. And even there his voice will be less noisy.
From time to time top clicker gets rivals in his bush, who may sing quite loudly. Then he goes to town; he doesn’t just click now. He clippers and clappers furiously, facing down the intruder who at last backs off and retreats to a lesser bush. But it all takes time. Top clicker is kept busy defending his bush, keeping control of a territory where he expects to attract his mates.
The larger, silent females develop more slowly, and lo! when they get there they best like the noisy male. He lords it then over a harem of healthy females in his lovely bush, while lesser males make lesser sounds on lesser bushes and rarely get a mating. What is a timid little male to do? It’s not so unusual in the world of animals for that matter. He creeps quietly onto the best bush. While the top dog clicker is competing with his almost as noisy rivals, pushing them off with loud crackles, timid silent guy rushes in and secretly mates with females standing by. If he is lucky, he may mate just as much as top clicker. Even if he is a small, dreary, silent guy he might have more offspring than vigorous noisy top clicker. By sly speed a weaker fellow might win and beat the brilliant brutish showoff. Just as in humans.
About Elizabeth Bernays
Elizabeth Bernays grew up in Australia then, as a British Government scientist, studied agricultural pests in developing countries. After being professor of entomology at the University of California Berkeley and Regents’ professor at the University of Arizona, she also obtained a MFA in creative writing. She has published thirty essays in a variety of literary journals and has won several awards including the X.J. Kennedy prize for nonfiction. For more information, visit http://www.elizabethbernays.com.