1875: When Locusts Ruled America

About every 30 minutes a species disappears from our planet. From the climate crisis to human negligence, there are endless factors that drive life into a non-existence black hole. By far, the most extraordinary eradication of these occurred in a family of small insects—the Rocky Mountain locust, which in 1902 became the only agricultural pest to face complete extinction. But this infamous species has continued to pop into the minds of farmers and entomologists after its mysterious disappearance, and for good reason. In 1875, Plattsmouth, Nebraska saw the largest swarm of these Rocky Mountain locusts that shook the world with their scale. The swarm even surpassed the reputation of the desert locust swarm of Africa, cementing its reputation in history for centuries to come.

A specimen of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper. visual: Janic Goff / Flickr

tramp with wings

Historians and entomologists have collected hard data about the 1875 Rocky Mountain locust plague from A.L. Child’s first-hand account written by Riley et al. According to his vision, the swarm was unprecedented in its size—a staggering 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide. It hovered over Nebraska for five days over equal areas of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the swarm consisted of about 12.5 trillion insects. This was probably the largest group of animals ever known. The disaster caused already fed up farmers to abandon their killing strategy and let the insects feast on their fields and homes. Laura Ingalls Wilder later wrote a fictional account of the ravages of the ’70s in her 1937 novel On the banks of Plum Creek.

For years before the incident, the locusts had pierced through the agricultural land like vagabonds hungry for destruction. Billions, possibly trillions of shimmering fliers permeate the North American skies, blanketing farm fields and home backyards each year. They left nothing out—feeding rye and barley, wheat and fruit was a given, but even the laundry hanging on ropes and the blankets covering the lawn were delicious on the table. The kids screamed at the aviators, clinging to their trousers, and stomping as much as they could under their feet. Farmers took over the fields with guns and rifles, intended to kill as well as set fire to patches to burn the insects alive.

rocky mountain grasshopper

An image of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper on a ceramic urn by Julia Galloway. visual: Harvard Arts / Flickr

The species is commonly recognized as a type of grasshopper that flies in large flocks. But in reality, these grasshoppers were very different from grasshoppers, with short thick legs and a glossy brown body in contrast to the leafy green. Unlike Hopper’s whimsical cricketing, which fills the field late into the night, the sound of locusts was almost absent, evident only in their bites and chews. This species was purely American, and did not inhabit any other land. They froze on both sides of the Rockies on the fertile river valleys of the West, their pasture and, sadly, the site of their destruction as it later turned out to be.

Unlike other hoppers and crawlers, Rocky Mountain locusts disappeared from the face of the earth just as quickly as they took over land early in life. Their colossal size was reduced to zero 28 years after the terrible swarm of 1875. Entomologist Jeffrey A. Lockwood explains that this has happened for a number of plausible reasons, mainly related to the unintentional destruction by the actions of man. In their “permanent breeding areas” of the West, female locusts lay thousands of eggs in the ground. Farmers took these fields with horse-drawn machines and started plowing as it was highly fertile. As the soil turned, the egg hosts were continually destroyed. While the locusts seemed impervious to rifles and fire, their numbers gradually declined as men also brought insect-eating birds and environment-changing plants to their farming.

rocky mountain grasshopper

Illustration of egg laying by females (1869).

The last time we saw a live grasshopper was in 1902. Naturally, the large and unpleasant existence meant that smaller creatures were taken lightly. Everyone was wishing for their extinction and no one bothered to take samples. This is why even today, some 120 years later, we have the largest collection of locust fossils with only 100 locusts, which sits at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia. This poses a major impediment to further studies that may determine other causes behind the mass extinction of insects.

Dr Lockwood has suggested that the largest natural reservoir of these locusts is present in the frozen glaciers of the Rocky Mountains. His expedition revealed knots of broken wings and entangled legs. Excavations confirmed their existence to be 800 years old. While their complete absence makes it difficult for anyone to imagine their existence today, analyzes have confirmed that locusts were indeed a true species distinct from other hoppers. Etymologists have officially named them Caloptenus spratus. Spratus means ‘disdain’ and makes the reputation of the insects a whole lot more fitting. The specimens have therefore proved to be invaluable in the classification of pests. In search of large reserves of these dead species, Dr. Lockwood floats the dreamy possibility that, perhaps, somewhere on Earth, there is an untouched pocket of insects lurking. Theorists have confirmed that the locust’s resurrection is possible and plausible, but until then, the memory of their angry swarms is what keeps us company.

reference

, new York Times

, Grasshopper by Jeffrey A. Lockwood

, Cornell Chronicle

, Rocky Mountain Grasshopper by CV Riley

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