The Grasshopper Olympics

by Barbara Walvoord

(first published in the Lathrop Lamp Post of August 25, 2016)

Many of us watched the Olympic broad jump and high jump this past week. But if you walk in Lathrop’s meadows or fields these days, you’ll see some even more astonishing jumping going on—grasshoppers, leaping to get out of your way. This one, in the Cranberry meadow on the east campus, kindly stayed put long enough for me to get a photo.

If we humans could leap as far as grasshoppers in relation to our body size, we could jump nearly half a football field. A grasshop-per’s hind legs function like miniature catapults. When it wants to jump, the grass-hopper contracts its large flexor muscles slowly, bending its hind legs at the knee joint. A special piece of cuticle within the knee acts as a spring, storing up all that potential energy. When the grasshopper is ready to jump, it relaxes the leg muscles, allowing the spring to release its energy and catapulting its body into the air. Plus, the grasshopper has wings. When migrating, grasshoppers can stay in the air for up to three days.

And they do all this on a mostly vegetarian diet—grasses, leaves, and crops. It’s the crops part that gets grasshoppers mentioned in the Bible, as a plague. Swarms of grasshoppers, often called locusts, can decimate huge areas. If we were to eat like grasshoppers, we would eat half our body weight every day. So instead of “eat like a pig,” you could say, “eat like a grasshopper.”

However, grasshoppers are themselves food for our birds, snakes, and foxes. In many parts of the world, grasshoppers also feed humans. One grasshopper contains six grams of protein. So our Inn menu could contain roasted grasshoppers or grasshopper fritters. You can find out how to catch them, humanely kill them, clean them, and prepare them at http://www.wikihow.com/Cook-Grasshoppers.

By Bible times, grasshoppers were already an old species–300 million years–older than dinosaurs. But individual adult grasshoppers are only around for about three months. They spend 9 months in their eggs, including overwinter. They’ve hatched by now and are busy laying the eggs for next summer’s generation. Our grassy fields, maintained without pesticides, provide a home and a jumping ground for these amazing Olympians.

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