Monday, March 4, 2024

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

A mighty grasshopper called the Eastern Lubber is slowly making its way into Missouri. Traditionally this species was only found in the southeastern states, but like many invertebrates, they don’t always recognize manmade boundaries and go where they please, or at least where the resources are. They are also found in Texas, Louisiana, and Arizona.

The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper is the only lubber in the southeastern United States,  they share the family Romaleidae with other lubbers, the name comes from a Greek word, and when translated into Latin means “strong of body.” This is an apt description of such a heavy-bodied, large grasshopper. The name lubber comes from the old English word lobre, which means lazy, or clumsy, which again is a very good description of this grasshopper. These large grasshoppers have small wings that barely extend half their body length making it impossible for them to fly. Instead, they are destined to a life of crawling, or ambling clumsily across the landscape. They appear slow and awkward as they move from place to place. However, what they lack in gracefulness they more than make up for in their ability to climb.

Like many insects, they possess defensive strategies to avoid being eaten by hungry predators. Their first line of defense is their coloring. Bright coloration in nature often warns predators they are poisonous or at the very least that they taste bad. The second line of defense is their ability to flap their wings rapidly and to secrete a toxin sprayed from their thorax. Many of the plants they consume give them these beneficial toxins which make them unpalatable to predators. Because they feed on a wide variety of plants at different times of the year, they take in a wide variety of toxins at different times, making it impossible for would-be predators to build up a tolerance for the chemical defense they utilize. Vertebrates like birds and small mammals have learned to avoid them, and those too young or too na├»ve to know better will find themselves gagging, regurgitating, or even dying from the experience. Even an opossum, which seems able to eat anything, will avoid them. An exception is loggerhead shrikes, which have figured out that if they impale the lubbers onto a thorn or other sharp object and wait a few days for the toxins to become diluted in the dead grasshopper they can then consume it. Invertebrate predators like large mantids are unaffected by the toxins but find it difficult to manage such large insects covered in thick exoskeletons,  so most avoid expending the energy it would take to overcome one.

Their third line of defense is to hiss loudly startling a predator, which may make it think twice before messing with such an ill-tempered adversary. Having all these defenses seems like overkill, but for an insect incapable of flight and lacking the ability to physically escape they must employ other means to avoid being eaten.

Photo: K. Leeker
They are easily recognized as no other grasshopper is as large or colored quite like them. Both the Western Horse Lubber and the Eastern Lubber are the largest of the grasshoppers in the United States, both capable of reaching lengths of three and a half inches, some claim they have seen them as long as four inches. Truly a large insect! As nymphs, they are black with yellow, orange, or red stripes down the body. As they mature from nymph to adult their coloring will vary from dull orange with black spots, to bright orange with black markings or even an entirely black version with red or yellow stripes, that resembles the nymphal stage. They possess sharp spines on their legs that can pierce human flesh, and they are capable of giving a strong, somewhat painful nip if mishandled.

Like most lubbers, as nymphs, they are known to be gregarious and can move in large numbers over the landscape sometimes wreaking havoc as they do. The verdict is still out as to whether the feeding habits of these insects cause significant damage to plants. Some claim with their large numbers and even larger appetites, they can cause significant damage to citrus, vegetable, peanut, corn, and other crops as well as ornamental landscape plants. As adults, their appetite is not as large as what one would expect out of a plant-eating insect that gets so impressively large. It is also known they have a secretion in their saliva that stimulates new growth, making plant foliage bushier and possibly more appealing to four-legged grazers. However, as nymphs, if they occur in large enough numbers they can defoliate leaves rapidly and may stunt or kill young plants.

Because of the characteristics attributed to these grasshoppers…..the large size, bright warning coloration, toxic secretions, and gregarious populations, they are often given some pretty colorful common names including the devil's horse, black diablo, Georgia thumper, soldier boys, and the graveyard grasshopper. 

The first time most people come in contact with this large lubber is during science class when they are dissecting one for biology studies. The experience is likely to stay with you as they smell horribly from the formalin and their natural essence. For now, their population within Missouri is limited to low numbers on the eastern side of our state. With climate conditions rapidly changing and new agricultural practices of farming roadside to roadside and fencerow to fencerow, leaving little to no vegetation for these and other insects to feed on, our fields are becoming more favorable to crop-eating insects.  It may be in the not-too-distant future we experience the giant lubber in our neck of the woods.