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?


    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?


  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! 😀

  15. Thopter

    I saw one a few weeks ago too: 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.”

    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

    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: 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. If its in Wikipedia it must be true. 😉 I, also was astonished the first time