You know who wanted to see evolution in action? Katydid.

By Phil Plait | October 8, 2011 7:00 am

A few nights ago, my wife went outside for a moment, only to come running back in a minute later, grabbing me. "Phil, come out here, you have to see this!"

So I went out, and she pointed out this lovely lady to me:

I recognized it right away: a katydid, though that’s a fairly generic name. I think that’s actually an example of Microcentrum retinerve, or the Lesser Angle-winged Katydid (though it’s possibly Microcentrum rhombifolium; it’s hard to tell in these pictures*). They’re pretty common in North America, though usually not this far west from what I can tell. It was roughly 5 – 7 cm long, and quite pretty. I suspect this one is female because there are no brown spots near the tops of the wings, which males have (I wondered briefly if it may have been a nymph, but this late in the season that seems unlikely). I would’ve checked for an ovipositor, but c’mon, have some respect.

Check out those wings: they look amazingly like plant leaves, which is of course why my wife was so excited. The obvious conclusion is that long ago, the insects like this that had greenish wings with vein-like structures were harder to spot by predatory birds, and were able to pass this characteristic down to their kids (ones that were easier to see got eaten, and didn’t get a chance to reproduce as much). Little by little, bit by bit, every time one insect’s wings looked a bit more leafy than its siblings it would tend to live longer, and reproduce more. Over thousands, millions, of generations of katydids we get this: an insect that would be incredibly difficult to see from the air. Natural selection at work, my friends. Some people would even call this evolution. I know I would.

A very cool thing to see, and a fun example of how wonderful and subtle nature can be.

But sometimes subtlety is overrated. Wouldn’t it have been cooler to see one like this?

[If you like pix of insects, my Hive Overmind co-blogger Ed Yong just coincidentally mentioned the blog Myrmecos by Alex Wild, which has stunning photography.]


* And duh, of course I had to look those names up online. I’m an astronomer, not a bugologist.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Caturday, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: evolution, katydid

Comments (66)

  1. Cindy

    Cool picture. Nice change from the Caturday.

    Now I have the song “She caught the Katy” from the Blues Brothers soundtrack running through my head.

  2. Chris

    As for pink katydids, they suffer from a condition known as Erythrism. It’s a genetic disease which affects 1 out of every 500 katydids.. There is no known cure. Please help support their cause.

  3. Titan

    I don’t see how people can deny natural selection and (that evil word) evolution when looking at creatures like this.

  4. RwFlynn

    Here in VA we see a couple o these a year. Well, we probably only recognize a couple of these a year. I would bet that we unwittingly see many more a year.
    /btw I would flip my lid if I saw a bright magenta one like that!

  5. Chris

    @3 Titan
    They very easily say “I don’t know how that could have happened, therefore some higher power must have made it that way so it wouldn’t be eaten.” It’s all cherry picking which facts they use to prove their point.

  6. * And duh, of course I had to look those names up online. I’m an astronomer, not a bugologist.

    Isn’t the internet amazing!? What did we do before then when we had an urge to find out something random, but didn’t have the inclination to leave our house?

  7. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Larian LeQuella:

    Isn’t the internet amazing!? What did we do before then when we had an urge to find out something random, but didn’t have the inclination to leave our house?

    [Sarcasm]
    WE READ THE BIBLE!!! THE BIBLE HAS *ALL* THE ANSWERS!!!1!1!! HALLELUJAH!!! PRAISE THE LORD!!!1!1!!
    [/Sarcasm]

  8. Dr.Sid

    It’s pretty .. but how the hell did it get on the Moon ?

  9. Cathy

    When I was a child, I wrote down things I had questions about throughout the day and then hit up the dictionary and/or the encyclopedia when I got home from school. If I still had no answers, I asked my parents, who sometimes knew. If they didn’t know, I’d hoard my list of “stuff I’m curious about” until Saturday, when I’d look it up in the library. Wikipedia and a smart phone means I’ve got true instant curiosity gratification now.

  10. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    But they’re still insects! Hah! Pwned!

  11. Scott Rivers

    This isn’t astronomy! Unsubscribed.

    (Joking. She’s indeed a cute little one.)

  12. Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @Dr.Sid: I’m sure Richard Hoagland will eventually publish a book describing the giant lunar katydid race.

  13. I think it’s more of an evolution still life.

    The pink one is interesting. Is that a genetic disorder, or is it a trait that is being selected out?Were they once pink for some reason and green ones started as a random mutation that was more likely to survive? Have they been slowly switching from pink to green over the last million years?

  14. DrFlimmer

    @ Cathy

    True Instant Curiosity Gratification?

    You should go getting a ™ for this! :D

  15. Thopter

    I saw one a few weeks ago too: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8725574/PHTO0066.JPG I had also noticed the leafy wings, but I didn’t immediately know what it was.

  16. CH

    Judging from the the crater sizes and distribution and the lateral fissure lines, this is clearly the Giant Katydid of Enceladus.

  17. Kathy King

    What a great shot! She’s a beauty, but yes, that magenta specimen was … WOW!

  18. Jason

    But it is STILL a Katydid!

  19. soooey

    What Cathy said^^^^.
    Bugologist! Teehee.

  20. MadSciKat =^..^=

    “Evolution, baby!” ~Paul

    BTW, the pink katydid isn’t the only bug of its color. Check out the pink millipede: “Able to shoot cyanide, this millipede is tough enough to wear pink.”

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/12/photogalleries/greater-mekong-new-species-photos/photo2.html

    Happy Katyday!

  21. Dave C

    Phil – There’s no need to wonder whether or not this is a nymph. Only adult insects have wings!

  22. I love the noise these bugs make. They are just a really cool insect, so glad to see a nice photo of the lovely lady! And @Chris #2: thank you for the link. That was fascinating to learn about.

  23. Kurt Kohler

    Following the links leads to this

    http://goo.gl/R5Nde

    So it’s really not photoshopped.

  24. Dragonchild

    Ugh, not lovely. They were pests in the yard where I grew up. They stank if you killed them. The cat would snack on them, making these gawdawful crunchy noises.

    Growing up I actually got to see a lot of bugs most of my peers didn’t because, my mother having made me the yard caretaker at the ripe old age of twelve, I did the bare minimum and didn’t use any insecticides at all. My backyard had a fair bit of natural selection going on.

  25. Orlando

    “I would’ve checked for an ovipositor, but c’mon, have some respect.” LOL

  26. Chief

    I would go with the praying mantis who have adapted the cover of the plants or better yet, flowers to which they match as a better proof of evolution.

  27. j

    This makes me believe in UFOs! Now I know how the elephant got a long nose (Kipling).
    I wonder why all of us (at least all insects, or small mammals) don’t look like leaves…
    oh well….I don’t have any answers, just questions.

  28. Quinn O'Neill

    That lady’s got some nice stems!

  29. MadSciKat =^..^=

    @Cathy – You too, huh? I was a 5-year-old encyclopedia junkie – Totally, hopelessly hooked from the day my mom brought home Vol. 1 of the Funk & Wagnalls from the grocery store! Then on to Britannica, back in the 60s when it was still a REAL encyclopedia, not that dumbed-down macro/micropedia piece of crap that was its last gasp in print…

    …and now? Living out in the boonieburbs with no transportation & a public library that seems to think Danielle Steele is great literature, Teh Innert00bz is my best friend!

  30. KC

    Well you know God made them that way to fool sinners into believing in Evolution! You skeptics are sooo stoopid! See you in hell….

  31. 9. Cathy Says:
    Wikipedia and a smart phone means I’ve got true instant curiosity gratification now.
    ——-
    I remember watching the original BBC Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series as a kid and being amazed by the idea of a small pocket-size device that could let someone access all knowledge in the universe in an instant. Never thought it would become a reality in my lifetime.

  32. Chief

    re 31. I recently bought the BBC Hitchhiker’s series. Would love to put together a real Don’t Panic book. At least we have a much better understanding and maps of the local regions of space.

  33. I am much more to the East of you and I see several of these (both males and females) every night on my back porch. Gorgeous creatures!

  34. Great post Phil — Microcentrum rhombifolium and M. retinerve are very close in general appearance but are readily separated by the shape of the anterior margin of the pronotum (that’s the shield behind the head). In M. retinerve the margin is very slightly emarginate, whereas in M. rhombifolium there is a distinctive median process (see image here: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/9371131/Microcentrum.jpg). A careful inspection of your photograph reveals slight emargination of the margin and no median process, so your specimen is indeed M. retinerve. Nice work!

  35. Gary Ansorge

    About three years ago, a kid brought us(at Red Top Mt State Park) a 4 inch praying mantis.

    Fascinating critter.

    If I ever get to build my H.O.M.E.(High Orbital Mini Earth), I would probably include critters like this in my bounded eco-system,,,but mosquitos will be forbidden(and other blood suckers). I wonder how long it would take evolution(in such a limited environment) to come up with a mutated insect that preferred sucking on me?

    ,,,millions of years? Ok. I’ll wait.

    Gary 7

  36. Infinite123Lifer

    I am going to make like a katydid and leaf.

  37. These are common in the San Joaquin valley. (Bakersfield, CA)

  38. No one denies natural selection as Titan claims – not even the most ardent creationist. (In fact, a creationist named Edward Blyth thought of natural selection decades before Darwin wrote his book On The Origin of Species.)

    I look at this creature and see amazing evidence for design. But even if natural selection “created” the katydid, that would in no way prove molecules-to-man evolution or disprove the existence of God.

    Evolution is false because random genetic mutations – copying errors in the genome – cannot generate new genetic information – something evolution demands in spades. Overall, natural selection preserves, it does not create. And ultimately, it drives organisms to extinction, not to greater complexity.

  39. Infinite123Lifer

    I am back. And here I go to leaf again!

  40. BJN

    We’re west of you and katydids have been in the Great Basin as long as I can remember.

    That’s the Greater Angle-wing Katydid, Microcentrum rhombifolium

  41. Jim

    In Carl Sagan’s Cosmos there was a story about crabs in Japan, the fishermen would toss back into the water crabs that had specific patterns on their shells, I think the pattern was of a human face, so over the generations these crabs also changed so the human face crabs became predominate.

    White and more common yellow tigers are another example.

  42. DrFlimmer

    @ #38 and #40 Infinite123Lifer

    Dude, the joke doesn’t get better by repeating it. ;)

    And if you try to make the first version better, you should have copied Dr. Plait:

    I am going to make like katydid and leaf.
    (leaf out the “a”)

    And now I take my coat… ;)

  43. TheBlackCat

    It seems katydids tend to get people’s attention for two reasons:

    1. They can be kind of weird looking
    2. They can be HUGE

    My mom once sent me a picture of a huge bug *ahem* insect (sorry Sam Heads) that was sitting on her office window and no one could figure out. It was pretty clearly a katydid, but was pretty strange looking. I think the conversation went something like this:

    Her: Hi, did you see the image I texted you?
    Me: Yes, but it it too blurry, I can’t make it out.
    Her: It is a really big insect that is on my office window. Everyone is asking about it and we figured you might know.
    Me: Is it really big and fairly thin with long legs?
    Her: That’s right.
    Me: Then it is probably either a katydid or a grasshopper.
    Her: Oh, thanks! We were curious because it is really weird looking.
    Me: Then it’s probably a katydid. If it was a grasshopper you would probably recognize it.

  44. Jen Deland

    I was sure whether the commenter who mentioned erythrism was joking. Apparently not. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erythrism. If its in Wikipedia it must be true. ;) I, also was astonished the first time I saw, as opposed to heard, a katydid. Maybe its the brightness of the green color that’s surprising. Lots of insects look like dead leaves. Looking so determinedly like a young leaf in spring with the sun shining on it seems like evolutionary overkill. A wonder of the world, however it came to be!

  45. Dragonchild

    @42 Jim – If that’s true, he’s talking about Heike crabs. The legend goes that the face on the crab means it’s a reincarnated spirit of a Heike soldier KIA during the Battle of Dan-no-ura. (The Heike were annihilated.)

    I’m skeptical of Carl’s claim because the Japanese aren’t superstitious and the crabs are hardly edible. They’re inch-wide hardshells; it’s just not worth the effort.

  46. I recall reading Carl Sagan’s account of the Heike crab story in the book version of Cosmos as the first time I really got how natural selection worked. But as far as I can tell, it’s a sort of just-so story; there’s no real evidence that the Heike crabs really got their faces that way, and reasons to believe they didn’t.

    Surprisingly, Carl Sagan didn’t make it up; according to Wikipedia he got it from Julian Huxley.

  47. Valdis Kletnieks

    Randy Ruggles@40: “Evolution is false because random genetic mutations – copying errors in the genome – cannot generate new genetic information”

    So what you’re saying is that transcription errors can result in the genetic equivalent of typographical errors, but these tyops *possibly* create new words? Gotcha.

    Read that carefully, and think for a minute. If the result of the mutation wasn’t new and different from the original, it would be identical to the original, and thus no mutation would be detectable. But since mutations *are* detectable, something changed – and thus there was new genetic information.

  48. Infinite123Lifer

    Yes I reckon Dr. Flimmer. Its the post-op meds talking though, I shall refrain. I am glad you got your coat too, I was worried you might leaf it.

  49. blaine

    They’re all over Utah, further west than you Phil :)

  50. Valdis Kletnieks@49

    I must defer to the expertise of geneticist Lee Spetner who says:

    “The mutations needed for macroevolution have never been observed. No random mutations that could represent the mutations required by NDT [Neo-Darwinian Theory] that have been examined on the molecular level have added any information.

    “The question I address is: Are the mutations that have been observed the kind the theory needs for support? The answer turns out to be NO! Many have lost information. To support NDT one would have to show many examples of random mutations that add information. Unless the aggregate results of the genetic experiments performed until now is a grossly biased sample, we can safely dismiss Neo-Darwinian theory as an explanation of how life developed from a single simple source.”

    http://www.trueorigin.org/spetner2.asp

  51. PayasYouStargaze

    I once had a bright green insect like that fly into my house and night and sit on the living room lampshade. I was amazed at how bright green it was. I assumed it was a cricket. While it probably wasn’t this species I guess I was kind of right because having just looked up katydid it is the US name for what in the UK might be called a bush-cricket. They are closer related to crickets than to grasshoppers too.

    PS. I’m amazed that it took up to post 40 for an actual creationist idiot to show up.

  52. TheBlackCat

    @ Randy Ruggles:

    First, Spetner is a physicist, not a geneticist, so trying to invoke him as an expert in the field is misleading.

    Second, even if he was an expert it doesn’t change the fact that he is simply wrong. Numerous mutations that have added information have been observed. For example the the evolution of citrate metabolism in E. coli in the laboratory, or nylonase activity in other bacteria in the wild, are clear cases of the addition of new information. In both cases there were new genes coding for new proteins with new functions, if that isn’t a case of added information then what is?

  53. PayasYouStargaze

    @54 TheBlackCat: ;)

    You see, God created the bacteria with the ability to digest nylon. When people invented nylon the bacteria was able to mutate and use that ability that IT OBVIOUSLY ALREADY had because new information CANNOT BE ADDED BY EVOLUTION. Mutations can only destroy WHAT WAS ALREADY THERE. If nylonase came from bacteria that couldn’t digest nylon, why are there bacteria that STILL digest naturally occuring substances.

    Spetner is a physicist, therefore he is not part of the EVILUTION CONSPIRACY that has infected the academic world of biology. HE is therefore free to EXPOSE evilution for it’s FALSE unGodly teachings, as began by Satan in an attempt to bring God’s downfall. And anyway, when confronted with God and scientists, who would you believe? That’s right, God, because he cannot be wrong.

    See, I can be a creationist too. It’s easy!

  54. Geek

    Does anyone ever ask creationists to define what they mean by “information” when they allege that information has not been seen to be added?
    Information theory defines a measure of information called entropy but it applies to a random variable and not to specific samples of emitted values. It therefore makes no sense to say any particular sample has more or less information than another.
    Information theory can say the following though: if you start with information source X (assume binary, with entropy below 1 bit per bit) and make a new source Y by flipping each bit of X with some probability p>0, then Y will have a greater entropy rate than X.
    By that definition, random mutations increase information.
    Is that why creationists never define “information”?

  55. PayasYouStargaze

    @56 Geek:

    I’ve been asking creationists what they mean by “information” for a while, and I’m hardly the first. Every time, they will attempt a definition that they think will prove evolution wrong.

    Sadly for them, it doesn’t matter how they define it, an example has been found for each of their definitions. Or at least, each of the definitions that would actually apply to biological information.

  56. Trikester

    Well, I just think that pretty pink katydid would do very well hiding in Bougainvillea!

  57. Ryan

    Saw one (or something like it) in San Diego last weekend.
    http://i1127.photobucket.com/albums/l628/cornicen/photo.jpg

  58. TheBlackCat

    @ PayasYouStargaze:

    “I’ve been asking creationists what they mean by “information” for a while, and I’m hardly the first. Every time, they will attempt a definition that they think will prove evolution wrong.”

    I’ve also had them argue “I would leave that up to the scientists to say since I don’t know enough about the subject, but since they don’t have a definition evolution is wrong creationism is correct”. When I point out that scientists do have several definitions of information, they claim that it isn’t the sort of information they are talking about, therefore evolution is wrong and creationism is correct.

  59. PayasYouStargaze

    @60 TBC:

    Ah yes. Creationists are a paradox really. You can never win, and yet, you can never lose an argument with them.

  60. Sam Heads

    Please be careful how much actual science you guys throw at Mr Ruggles — he may be tempted to start thinking and could really injure himself.

    @45. TheBlackCat: I shall forgive you for the use of the term “bug” in reference to an orthopteran ;)

  61. Sherry

    I just found one of these bugs in my window they are really beautiful to look at .

  62. Nigel Depledge

    Randy Ruggles (40) said:

    No one denies natural selection as Titan claims – not even the most ardent creationist.

    This is almost wrong. It’s so marginal that it is, in fact, disingenuous. Many creationists deny that NS can lead to the formation of a new species, and since NS has only ever had any significance in biology as a mechanism of change (i.e. speciation), you are splitting hairs to the point of irrelevance to assert that creationists do not deny NS.

    Many creationists deny unlimited NS, despite none ever coming up with any mechanism to limit it.

    (In fact, a creationist named Edward Blyth thought of natural selection decades before Darwin wrote his book On The Origin of Species.)

    That Blythe was a creationist is irrelevant, since no-one knew that any option existed at the time. Until Darwin, it was assumed that all life was Created. Once Darwin had realised that NS could lead to the formation of new species, there only needed to have been a single act of creation, at the beginning of life. (In fact, Darwin himself implies this in the final paragraph of OTOOS.)

    I look at this creature and see amazing evidence for design.

    This is prejudice, not science.

    But even if natural selection “created” the katydid, that would in no way prove molecules-to-man evolution

    But it proves the validity of the mechanism, i.e. speciation through NS (and other mechanisms where relevant). Your caricature of “molecules-to-man” evolution shows that you do not even know what Darwin claimed – you are making a strawman argument. Evolution is inevitable even if the first life on earth was divinely created. Once you understand the mechanism of NS, to suggest that it does not create new species you must propose a mechanism to limit it. And (AFAICT) no-one has even tried to propose such a mechanism.

    or disprove the existence of God.

    Who has ever claimed that evolution disproves the existence of god? When and where did they claim this?

    What evolution proves is that there is no need for a divine creator-god to produce the diversity and hierarchical interrelations of life that we observe around us. Prior to 1859, the diversity and complexity of life was often cited as “evidence” for the existence of god (Paley’s “watchmaker” argument).

    Evolution is false because random genetic mutations – copying errors in the genome – cannot generate new genetic information

    What utter nonsense.

    Any change in a DNA sequence is different information. Therefore, if that information did not exist previously, it is new information.

    You have obviously fallen for Dembski’s lies about information theory and its application to evolution. If you ask any information theorist, they will either have never heard of Dembski or will tell you that he does not unsderstand information theory.

    – something evolution demands in spades.

    Not really.

    All evolution demands in terms of information is change. And change is quite obviously all around us. If you wish to dispute this, find me a mammal that is exactly identical to its parents.

    Overall, natural selection preserves, it does not create.

    No. NS drives a population to be slightly more adequate than its parent generation at surviving in the conditions that applied to that parent generation. Various mechanisms in nature create variation (genetic recombination and mutation being but two of several). That variation provides the raw material for NS (and possibly genetic drift also) to change the average phenotype of a population. Over time, if a selection pressure is consistent, that change builds up.

    If two sub-populations of a species are physically isolated, and experience slightly different selection pressures, those sub-populations will diverge in character over time.

    NS only preserves if a population is perfectly adapted and if all conditions in the environment are constant. Even then, in the absence of a strong selection pressure, genetic drift will almost certainly play a larger role in driving change than NS can in preserving a set of traits.

    And ultimately, it drives organisms to extinction, not to greater complexity.

    This is a misapprehension. Where multiple species compete for the same resources, NS will make the least adequate extinct, unless they are able to adapt to a new niche. It depends on the possible rate of change for that particular organism and the strength of the selection pressure.

    Your strawmen are over-simplistic and betray a woeful misunderstanding of evolution.

    Maybe you should try to understand the theory before you attempt to criticise it, did you think of that?

  63. Nigel Depledge

    Randy Ruggles (52) said:

    Valdis Kletnieks@49

    I must defer to the expertise of geneticist Lee Spetner who says:

    Spetner’s degrees are in mechanical engineering and physics.

    You lose. Not only have you employed an argument from authority, but your authority is outside his field.

    “The mutations needed for macroevolution have never been observed. No random mutations that could represent the mutations required by NDT [Neo-Darwinian Theory] that have been examined on the molecular level have added any information.

    This is a straight lie. I have seen mutations that have created large morphological changes – on a parallel with those required for an organism to be identified as a new species. Any mutation in a hox gene will lead to major changes in the organism’s appearance.

    Moreover, hybridisation events have been observed that have led to new species. Mutations don’t get much bigger than mixing two different genomes.

    “The question I address is: Are the mutations that have been observed the kind the theory needs for support? The answer turns out to be NO! Many have lost information. To support NDT one would have to show many examples of random mutations that add information.

    To talk of “adding” and “losing” information, you must first be able to quantify information. How much information is there in a chimpanzee? What about a different chimpanzee? If two chimpanzees are both chimpanzees, and yet different from one another, they must contain different information. Do they have the same amount of information? If they don’t contain the same amount of information, which one has lost and which one has gained information? If they do contain the same amount of information, how come they are different? If they really have the same amount of information, this must mean that some information has changed from one generation to the next, i.e. a net change of zero, but with some different information, in the which case information has been both lost and gained at the same time, thus proving that Spetner is talking out of his fundament.

    Spetner has pulled the wool over your eyes. He really has no idea what he is talking about (well, either that or he deliberately is lying to the creationist audience to suit an agenda of his own).

    Unless the aggregate results of the genetic experiments performed until now is a grossly biased sample, we can safely dismiss Neo-Darwinian theory as an explanation of how life developed from a single simple source.”

    This is a non-sequitur. Spetner’s waffle about information is a smokescreen for the fact that he has no substantive argument against evolution.

  64. Infinite123Lifer

    44. DrFlimmer Says:
    October 9th, 2011 at 3:44 am
    @ #38 and #40 Infinite123Lifer
    Dude, the joke doesn’t get better by repeating it.
    And if you try to make the first version better, you should have copied Dr. Plait:
    I am going to make like katydid and leaf.
    (leaf out the “a”)
    And now I take my coat…

    However Dr. Flimmer upon closer examination you can see that I posted the original at roughly 6 pm, and after returning to the BA site (because I do when I can) approximately six hours later I read post #40 . . . which consequently is the catalyst for why I deposited the (as was pointed out: “inferior” version of said joke) joke in the second place. {also I cannot find where Dr. Plait used the incredibly obvious joke . . . not in the original article?}

    Also, I am probably not high caliber enough to take out that post @40, so I decided to leaf. . . only to return to read the carnage of #40’s comments torn apart with just a bit of deductive reasoning :) at the hands of posts #64 and #65.

    I shall leaf with this:

    Everyday is a good day to leaf somewhere :)

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