Melanoplus occidentalis (Thomas)
Link directly to photos of adults, nymphs,
Distribution and Habitat
M. occidentalis continental distribution map
Wyoming distribution map
The range of the flabellate grasshopper includes nearly all of the grasslands
of the western United States and Canadian provinces. The species inhabits
the natural prairies as a common member of grasshopper assemblages. Densities
are greatest in the mixedgrass prairie.
The flabellate grasshopper feeds on grasses and forbs. It competes for
food with both cattle and sheep, because cattle are generally graminivorous
and sheep forbivorous. By itself the species rarely reaches an economic
level of eight individuals per square yard, but it frequently contributes
one to three adults per square yard to heavy infestations of rangeland
grasshoppers. Adult weights are at the light end of the large third of
grasshopper size. Collected in Big Horn County, Wyoming, 22 July 1993,
males averaged 280 mg live weight and females 567 mg. (dry weight: males
86 mg, females 174 mg).
The flabellate grasshopper is a polyphagous insect. It feeds chiefly on
the leaves of forbs but it also consumes substantial amounts of grasses,
moss, roots, seeds, and dying or dead arthropods. Crop contents of grasshoppers
collected in the mixedgrass prairie of Nebraska and Wyoming consisted of
70 to 90 percent forbs, 8 to 15 percent grasses, and 1 to 10 percent arthropod
parts. Favored host plants are scarlet globemallow, wildbuckwheat, and
milkvetch. Grasses on which it is known to feed include blue grama, needlandthread,
western wheat-grass, and bluegrasses. It also consumes needleleaf sedge.
The flabellate grasshopper feeds both while on the ground, ingesting
moss and litter, and on plants, climbing to feed on leaves and bark.
The flabellate grasshopper is a strong flier with long wings extending
to or beyond the end of the abdomen. Relatively frequent "accidentals"
of this species have been found above 7,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains
of Colorado. In Montana two long-winged individuals, a male and a female,
were collected from the ice surface of Grasshopper Glacier in the Crazy
Mountains. No mass migration of the flabellate grasshopper has been observed
but it appears likely that such behavior occurs.
When flushed, flabellate grasshoppers fly distances of 2 to 7 feet at
heights of 3 to 6 inches. The evasive flight is straight, silent, and usually
across the wind.
Adults of the flabellate grasshopper are brightly colored (Fig.
6 and 7). The lower and inner surfaces of the hind femora are bright
orange. The hind tibiae are light blue. The middle fuscous patch on the
medial area of the hind femur is V-shaped. The cercus of the male is diagnostic,
appearing ear-like or fan-shaped (Fig.
9). The latter description of the cercus gives this grasshopper its
common name (flabellate = fan-shaped). The body is gray with bright orange
patches. The wings are long, reaching the end of the abdomen or extending
The nymphs (Fig. 1-5) are identifiable by
their shape, spots, and color patterns:
1. Head with face nearly vertical and solid tan or green; frontal costa
sometimes darker (Fig. 8); antenna
filiform; compound eye spotted and with a diagonal fuscous line on posterior
half near middle (See Figure 5 for clear
2. Prominent cream colored crescent beginning on gena below compound
eye and running onto pronotal lobe.
3. Hind femur with fuscous stripe interrupted (cut completely across)
4. Body brightly colored gray, tan, or green; underside of body pale
Many of the described nymphal characters of M. occidentalis,
M. infantilis, and M. gladstoni are similar, yet nymphs of
these species can be separated easily by color
and by their seasonal appearance. The venter (ventral side of both thorax
and abdomen) of nymphs of M. occidentalis is pale gray, while the
venter of nymphs of M. infantilis is usually white and of M.
gladstoni usually bright yellow. Nymphs of M. occidentalis and
M. infantilis are present in the grasshopper assemblage early in
the season along with nymphs of M. sanguinipes and M. packardii,
while those of the M. gladstoni are present late when all four of
the former species are adults.
Eggs of the flabellate grasshopper hatch in mid-spring at almost the same
time as the bigheaded, striped, and spottedwinged grasshoppers with which
it consorts. The period of hatching lasts approximately 25 days.
The flabellate grasshopper passes through five instars, becoming an adult
in 40 to 45 days. Nymphal development proceeds at approximately the same
rate as the bigheaded grasshopper. As with most grasshoppers the adult
males appear before the females.
Adults and Reproduction
Adults of the flabellate grasshopper remain in the same habitat in which
the nymphs hatch and develop. This habitat of the mixedgrass prairie continues
to furnish green host plants for their food and a favorable place for them
to live and reproduce. Observations of their courtship have not been made.
Mating pairs, however, have been observed frequently during the morning,
as early as 30 minutes after sunrise, and less often in the afternoon.
About two weeks after fledging, the female deposits her first clutch
of eggs. She selects a bare spot and works her ovipositor into the soil
to a depth of approximately 1 inch. She deposits eight to ten eggs, which
lie in two columns at depths between one-half inch and 1 inch. Upon withdrawing
her abdomen she briefly brushes soil over the exit hole with her ovipositor
and walks away. A female will continue to reproduce for the length of her
short life. The fecundity of females is unknown. There is one generation
The pod is 1 inch long and one-eighth inch in diameter (Fig.
10). The bottom half contains the egg mass and is curved. The top half,
vertically oriented just below the surface of the soil, is dried froth.
Eggs are pale yellow and 4.5 to 5.3 mm long.
Populations of the flabellate grasshopper fluctuate in a habitat with time.
In a favorable habitat of mixedgrass prairie in Wyoming, densities ranged
from 0.1 to 7.3 adults per square yard over a period of 10 years. During
half of this time the population was below one adult per square yard. In
some habitats of the mixedgrass prairie this species appears to be absent,
as is often the case in Montana.
The flabellate grasshopper is a diurnal insect being inactive at night
and active during the day. Both nymphs and adults rest horizontally on
bare ground at night. They move to basking positions, usually with their
side perpendicular to rays of the sun, about 45 minutes after sunrise.
They bask for about two hours before they start their normal activities
of pottering, feeding, and egg laying. At this time temperatures have risen
to about 70°F (air) and 90° to 100°F (soil). Activity ends
when temperatures in midsummer reach 90°F (air) and 130°F (soil).
Flabellate grasshoppers, adult by this time, climb small shrubs to heights
of 3 to 6 inches and rest in the shade. When temperatures decline in late
afternoon, they return to normal activities. Two hours before sunset, with
further decline in temperature, they again begin basking. As the sun begins
to set and shadows cover the ground, they assume their nocturnal resting
Anderson, N.L. 1973. The vegetation of rangeland sites associated with
some grasshopper studies in Montana. Montana Agr. Exp. Stn. bull. 668.
Capinera, J.L. and T.S. Sechrist. 1981. Grasshoppers (Acrididae) of
Colorado. Colorado Agr. Exp. Stn. Bull. 584S.
Mulkern, G.B., K.P. Pruess, H. Knutson, A.F. Hagen, J.B. Campbell, J.D.
Lambley. 1969. Food habits and preferences of grassland grasshoppers of
the North Central Great Plains. North Dakota Agr. Exp. Stn. Bull. 481.
Pfadt, R.E. 1977. Some aspects of the ecology of grasshopper populations
inhabiting the shortgrass plains. Minnesota Agr. Exp. Stn. Tech. Bull.
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