For each of the seven years that I’ve lived in the Sonora desert there has been at least one upstart which the locals recognize as never having been ‘on the books’. I term these the Species of the Year, and in ‘06 it’s an oddball I saw over the weekend and came to call the Squealer Grasshopper.
New species, or at least drastic variations, to my way of thinking occur in a spot due to one or more of the following circumstances: An advantageous mutation (rare); a new wrinkle of an old variety that reproduces in abundance and quickly sided with a severe weather or predatory year (more common); or, an unprecedented movement for whatever reason of a fauna or flora into a by-and-large sheltered territory of ‘island isolation’ such as my Sand Valley (most common).
This Valley is a 100-square mile basin encircled by mountains that block the rain from the west, wind, and most live traffic except the airborne such as birds and helicopters to the adjacent Chocolate Mountain Bombing Range.
In the Spring of ‘01 the grand Species was the Painted Lady, a tart butterfly- I should say millions- that invaded in such clouds that breathing was difficult for weeks. Another year the unique intruder was the wolf. One followed me long-tongued along a hike, and my neighbor, Laura, shot the scrotum from close range off another so it wouldn’t reproduce and eat the chickens. We decided the errant wolves either crossed the mountains to raid the coops or were introduced by the BLM. ‘04 was the year of the Flying Grasshopper, the largest I have seen around the world at up to 6′’, green, and with an absurdly high glide-to-drop ratio enabling it to soar without rest for miles over peaks.
Strictly speaking, four years ago the new species to my toenail of Sand Valley were the illegal Mexicans. My rancho lies 35 miles north of the border, and in a two-month period three groups totaling fifteen ‘wetbacks’ struggled fainting or sucking on barrel cactus onto my ten acres only to collapse in the trailer shade. They had been abandoned on the nearby gunnery range by ruthless ‘coyotes’ whom they’d contracted to transfer them to Los Angeles. There being no phone in Sand Valley, I helped them out in the most moral legal sense. There’s also a stripe of tracks between my library trailer and outhouse where the U.S. border Patrol pursued a van across the property and down a wash. A dozen Mexicans fled on foot after their van bogged in sand and the Border Patrol didn’t give chase. That may be the future bumper crop for a Species of the Year.
As for this year’s Species, I have never heard anything like the Squealer Grasshopper. Last weekend, I was resting under a Palo Verde tree and heard the familiar loud clap of grasshopper wings to my right, swiveled, and the insect kicked the dirt ten feet away shrieking like a stuck pig. A day later while hiking, a second grasshopper appeared with a wing flap followed by the same one-second shriek causing me to cast about for a tortured mammal. I walked over but there was only a large, typically brown & beige 3′’ desert grasshopper with a splash of yellow or red inside the wings.
I saw only two specimens of the Squealer this year and never before, however its strident call was enough to make me wheel. Hopefully, the shrill survival advantage, likely a mating call or scare tactic not to be eaten, won’t profligate to roaming herds that make sleep difficult and frighten off visitors. This grasshopper squeals only on landing to my knowledge. I believe it is caused by the wings but it could be vocal. I don’t know if the new feature is genetic or just a novel word in their vocabulary.
It is important to note that the new species introduced here are in the sense of fresh genetic material or an unprecedented appearance. My annual survey is a small unscientific sampling that any walker may replicate where there’s an element of island isolation. You don’t need to live in the wilds to study this. Try it on your daily walks in the city park, garden or basement.