Technology, grasshoppers and their poop combine for a new study in the Red Hills region

Technological changes may soon turn a lot of great field biologists out to pasture. Satellite imagery, automated recording devices, and digital cameras provide eyes and ears that never sleep, and perhaps nowhere is the technological transformation more evident than in a growing ability to know where things are and what they’re doing simply by collecting a little poop.

Consider this new study underway on the Wade Tract and other properties in the region. Dr. JoVonn Hill (Mississippi Entomological Museum, Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS) has studied grasshoppers for decades and is overwhelmed by the diversity sustained by longleaf pine forests.  You might think we know everything we need to know about the plants and animals found in southeastern pinelands, but this is clearly not the case. 

Grasshopper_Floritettix borealisDuring the past decade, Dr. Hill has discovered close to 30 undescribed species of grasshoppers inhabiting the biologically rich grasslands of the southeast. Much like plants, the highest diversity of grasshoppers occurs in regularly burned areas containing large patches of native groundcover, but the biology of the many species found in such areas is totally unknown.

Working with Dr. John Barone (Columbus State University’s Biology Department, in Columbus, Georgia), Hill has begun to use DNA to help determine which plants are being consumed by the many different species of grasshoppers. Grasshoppers are some of the most important herbivores found in grassland ecosystems, and detailed information on their ecological roles requires knowledge of their diets. Direct observations of grasshoppers during fieldwork can provide some data about food plants, but their wariness and mobility make this challenging. 

Drs. Hill and Barone are using a technique known as DNA barcoding to help figure out grasshopper diets.  By collecting the DNA from different plant species and then analyzing the unique chemical make-up of each species, a telltale signature can be developed. If you catch a grasshopper, wait patiently for it to provide a feces, and then analyze the plant DNA found in the poop, you conveniently can see the same DNA signatures from all the plants that species has eaten within the past few hours.

Grasshopper_Aptenopedes apalacheeThe duo has developed a DNA barcode library for about 200 different species of plants found in the grasslands of Mississippi and Alabama, and now they’re turning their attention to plants and grasshoppers in the Red Hills region. Since September, they been collecting samples from plants and grasshoppers and sending the material through the ringers. There are many questions the process could be used to assess.  How does the ground cover diversity affect the diversity of grasshoppers? Are there specialist grasshoppers out there that focus narrowly on selected plants or do grasshopper diets shift in relation do different suites of plants species present? How does the grasshopper community vary in relation to the disturbance of native ground cover? Do non-native species of grasshoppers take over and reduce the number of other species? Are there shifts in diet based on groundcover conditions?

The study is in a very early stage, but it provides a wonderful reminder of the role that biological field stations. The forests of the Red Hills region have attracted biologists for over a hundred years. The region contains an unparalleled diversity of plants and animals as well as some of the best examples of longleaf pine forests left anywhere on earth. Exploring the complex diversity of this rich landscape is fundamental goal of Tall Timbers Research Station and our many colleagues. The tools we use may be changing daily, but the goal remains the same as it did when Stoddard first slapped an aluminum band on a quail way back in the 1920s.  

JoVann Hill in the field

Dr. JoVonn Hill in the field. Photo by Reed Noss.


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