6 May 1999

New grasshoppers found Downunder

A scientific expedition to central and northern Australia has discovered more than a dozen previously unknown species of grasshoppers and katydids, many of them brilliantly coloured, large in size and loud in song.

"It just shows how much that is in this continent of Australia remains to be discovered," says an enthusiastic Dr Dave Rentz, a senior taxonomist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Entomology and the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC).

A six week trip across the north and centre by Dr Rentz and colleague Piotr Naskrecki yielded more than 4000 specimens, to be catalogued and described over the coming years. Among them, he is convinced, are 12-18 new species and possibly even a new genus or two.

"We found katydids with a wingspan of 15 centimetres, like little aircraft. So large, yet still undescribed by science.

"We found grasshoppers superbly disguised as the small round pebbles you find on gibber plains, or the little toads that swarm in the desert after its rare downpours.

"We found grasshoppers and katydids of every imaginable hue - green and gold, black and white, red, purple, striped yellow and black like wasps. They are truly the jewels of the Outback.

"One specimen we found near Alice Springs is bright green with purple wings and speckled with opalescent spots. It's truly a thing of beauty," Dr Rentz says.

"We found source of the loudest sound in the desert at night. It's a katydid, a long-antennaed grasshopper, which is still undescribed in spite of the racket it makes.

"It must have given the early explorers quite a fright. Of course, they didn't have electric torches, to go an find out what was making the noise."

Dr Rentz says much of the expedition's work was done by torchlight, because - though it isn't commonly realised - many grasshoppers are very active nocturnally, feeding, mating and competing with one another.

"Grasshoppers play a central role in the Australian environment. They are recyclers of nutrients, they control certain weeds, and they are the basic food for our wonderful reptile fauna and birds. "But they can also be pests, like the six or more kinds of plague locust found in Australia. And they have a noted place in bush tucker cuisine."

Dr Rentz has another theory about the role of grasshoppers in human culture: after close study of the intricate and elegant patterns of multicoloured camouflage on some species, he is convinced they may have lent inspiration to certain schools of Aboriginal art, so striking is the similarity between the patterns made by nature and our native artists.

The work of discovery is far more than simply cataloguing what lives in Australia - it is the piecing together of the intricate fragments of a deeply ancient landscape so that we can better understand, cherish and steward it for future Australians.

As part of this work for ANIC, Dr Rentz, a gifted photographer, is compiling a Field Guide to the grasshoppers and locusts of Australia - a companion both for the avid naturalist, the casual visitor or the miner, grazier or ranger responsible for caring for the landscape.

Dr Rentz has also recorded the songs of the grasshoppers and katydids of the Outback and produced a unique CD from them.

The Australian National Insect Collection - for which Dr Rentz works - and CSIRO are key players in Australia's bid to become part of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Australia is also likely to bid to host the world headquarters of GBIF, whose task will be to gather all available information on every kind of living species, their genes and biodiversity. This will be vital for conservation and for biotechnology, the super-industry of the 21st century.