Archive for September 17th, 2010

Keep Looking Up

by Toby J. Swaford, K-12 Education Coordinator

The week holds a plethora of sky gazing opportunities.

First off, Saturday, September 18th will debut the very first International Observe the Moon Night. The evening is an offshoot of many programs that exist to explore and study Earth’s closest neighbor, including the very successful Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been sending back detailed images of the lunar surface. The moon will be in its waxing gibbous phase on Saturday, moving from a quarter to a full moon by Thursday, the 23rd of September.

As the moon moves through its phases, there will be a few objects competing for your attention in the night sky. Monday evening, September 20th and Tuesday morning, September 21st, will see Jupiter at its closest proximity to Earth in over 40 years. This will make Jupiter the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon. Jupiter will be visible throughout the evening, appearing almost directly overhead at midnight. As you’re looking for Jupiter you may also be able to see Uranus just above the giant planet. Unlike Jupiter, which is visible to the unaided eye, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to make out the tiny blue green Uranus.

If staying up until midnight isn’t your cup of tea, there’s also the chance for some early morning observations over the next few days with Mercury appearing low in the eastern sky about an hour before sunrise. The best days for viewing Mercury will be September 18, 19, & 20th. While Mercury will look like a pinkish colored light to the naked eye, a telescope may allow you to see the planet pass through a quick change of phases similar to those of our much slower moving moon.

Don’t worry if you don’t have your own telescope, because on Friday, September 24th, The Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, along with the Astronomy Department of Front Range Community College, will host the Star Nights program at the Stargazer Observatory. The event runs from 8:00 to 10:00 PM on Friday evening and will include the StarLab Planetarium program, access to the telescope at the Stargazer Observatory, and other hands-on activities. The program is offered free to the public, although registration is required due to limited availability. To make a reservation, please contact Toby Swaford at 970-416-2705, extension 2.

The Rocky Mountain Locust

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

During our recent grasshopper emergence, I’ve heard several people refer to our abundance of insects as a “plague.” Well, they’re sort of right. The correct term for a group of generic grasshoppers is a “cloud,” not a “plague,” but the term for a group of locusts, the swarming phase of grasshoppers in the family Acrididae, is a “plague.” Locusts are differentiated from other grasshoppers by their destructive, migratory behavior. With huge and rapid population increases, locusts consume all the vegetation within a region and then, en masse, migrate to the next abundant supply of food.

The most famous locust to plague this part of North America? Melanoplus spretus, the Rocky Mountain locust.

Rocky Mountain locust

As European settlers from the east began moving further west during the mid 1800s, locusts from the west were moving east and the two groups met in the middle. Normally, M. spretus maintained its range in the Rocky Mountains, but when the species’ population became too large, that range expanded out onto the prairie. Accounts of grasshoppers in numbers so great they blocked out the sun began to come out of the Great Plains.

The Cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers.Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm – Laura Ingles Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

From July 20 to July 30 of 1874, a plague of locusts was recorded over the prairie that covered 198,000 square miles (approximately twice the size of Colorado!) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons.* The locusts ate everything: crops, grass, trees, clothing, leather, dead animals, and even each other. The number of insect bodies on the ground became so great that they literally stopped railroad traffic: the tracks around Colorado Springs became so slick with locusts that the train wheels couldn’t roll over them.

Range of the Rocky Mountain locust

The largest recorded swarms of the Rocky Mountain locust peaked from 1873-1877, the same time people were actively settling the west. People tried everything to get rid of the insects: burning fields, blasting land with gunpowder, bringing in locust predators and parasites, and building mechanical contraptions to collect and destroy the insects.

However, as quickly as the insect and reports of its destruction had spread across the prairie, the Rocky Mountain locust disappeared just as quickly. The last confirmed sighting of a living specimen was in 1902.

There’s debate over what factors contributed to the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust. The most accepted theory is that the very settlers the locusts wrecked havoc on ended up, inadvertently, destroying the species by destroying the insects’ breeding ground to plant crops.

Because locusts are a behavioral form of grasshoppers that emerge when populations reach high enough densities, there is a theory that other grasshopper population can become “locust-ized” and behave like M. spretus if conditions are right. However, DNA testing from museum specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust suggests that M. spretus was a distinct, and now extinct, species and the days of the locust on the scale of 12.5 trillion individuals are gone.

If you do still want to find Rocky Mountain locusts, the best place to look (other than in a museum) is in a glacier. Throughout the west there are glaciers that have preserved the frozen bodies of locusts that once flew over them.

Mummified locust from a glacier

For an excellent exploration of the natural and cultural history of the locust, I recommend reading Jeffrey A. Lockwood’s Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.

*Because of this plague, M. spretus holds a place in The Guinness Book of World Records as “the greatest concentration of animals.”

September 2010

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