Thanks to entomology student Brandon Woo, there are now five specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust in the Cornell University Insect Collection. Photo by Matt Hayes/College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
ITHACA, N.Y., Oct. 6 (UPI) -- You never know when a monotonous organizational task is going to turn into a scientific discovery. But while sorting grasshoppers the Cornell University Insect Collection, entomology student Brandon Woo spotted three that didn't look quite right.
They were a dull brown and oddly shaped with especially long wings. After a little digging through the scientific literature, Woo realized he was looking at the Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus -- the species that infested farms and ravaged crops throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Reports of Rocky Mountain locust damage stretched from California to Maine. Its presence threatened the livelihood and survival of many Great Plains settlers. Between 1873 and 1877, the locust was blamed for $200 million worth of crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska.
Unexpectedly, the locust became extinct in the early 1900s. Very few specimens were collected. North America is the only continent without a single locust species.
"Every continent in the world has one or two species of plague locust," Woo explained in a news release. "North America doesn't have one anymore, but it used to. And it was this one."
While the locust's complete disappearance was a surprise, it wasn't an accident. Farmers slowly realized the insects retreated to sandy loam in the foothills of the Rockies to lay their eggs. Over the years, farmers routinely tilled the soil in these areas, killing the locust eggs. It's the only time a major pest has ever been completely eradicated -- and without the help of chemicals or genetic engineering.
"Usually they occur in such numbers and wide locations, they're impossible to get rid of," Woo said. "Humans exploited the fact that this locust had small localities to retreat to in order to breed."
The three specimens discovered by Woo were part of a collection of grasshoppers purchased in 1893 from professor Lawrence Brunner of the University of Lincoln, Nebraska. They join two other previously identified Melanoplus spretus specimens in Cornell's collection.