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The name Orthoptera is sometimes used for all the insects in the "orthopteroid" assemblage, including roaches, earwigs, mantises, and many others. However, it is more usual to restrict the Orthoptera (Greek for "straight-wing") to the crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, and their kin. These insects are instantly recognizable by their long hind legs, which are modified for jumping. Most orthopterans can generate noise by rubbing special organs together on their legs or on their wings, a habit known as stridulation. This photograph, taken with the UCMP Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope, shows the "file" -- a ridged vein on the wings of a mole cricket in the genus Oecantha. Mole crickets rub this file over another specialized structure on the other wing, the "scraper," to produce sound. Special membranes on the legs or on the abdomen allow orthopterans to hear these sounds, which are used in courtship.
The mouthparts of orthopterans are modified for chewing plant material; in fact, orthopterans can be serious agricultural pests in certain areas.
The oldest fossil orthopterans are Pennsylvanian in age; that is, about 300 million years old. The fossil grasshopper shown at the right of the page is much younger, only a few tens of thousands of years old; it is from the McKittrick Asphalt of southern California, a fossil-bearing tar deposit (very much like the famous La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles). Today, there are about 80,000 species of orthopterans. Some, like the swarming locusts, are serious pests and destroyers of vegetation. Others, we are told, are remarkably tasty and nutritious when properly prepared.
Locust stew anyone? Or do the chocolate chirpie chip cookies sound more pleasing to your palate? Click to find out how to prepare these orthopteran culinary delights.
Special thanks to the Department of Entomology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for the image of the live grasshopper that appears in this exhibit.