Rocky Mountain locust

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Rocky Mountain locust
1902 illustration

Extinct (1902)  (IUCN 3.1)[1]

Presumed Extinct (1902)  (NatureServe)[2]
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Orthoptera
Suborder: Caelifera
Family: Acrididae
Genus: Melanoplus
M. spretus
Binomial name
Melanoplus spretus
(Walsh, 1866)
  • Caloptenus spretus Walsh, 1866[3]
  • Acridium spretis Thomas, 1865[3][4]

The Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) is an extinct species of grasshopper that ranged through the western half of the United States and some western portions of Canada with large numbers seen until the end of the 19th century. Sightings often placed their swarms in numbers far larger than any other locust species, with one famous sighting in 1875 estimated at 198,000 square miles (510,000 km2) in size (greater than the area of California), weighing 27.5 million tons and consisting of some 12.5 trillion insects, the greatest concentration of animals ever speculatively guessed, according to Guinness World Records.[5]

Less than 30 years later, the species was apparently extinct. The last recorded sighting of a live specimen was in 1902 in southern Canada.[6] Because a creature so ubiquitous was not expected to become extinct, very few specimens were ever collected (though a few preserved remains have been found in Knife Point Glacier, Wyoming and Grasshopper Glacier, Montana).[7]

Rocky Mountain locusts were a part of the diet of the critically endangered or possibly extinct Eskimo curlew (Numenius borealis) on its spring migration and the extinction of the locust has been speculated as being a factor in the decline of the curlew.


The species name was formally published with the Latin binomial Caloptenus spretus in 1866 by B.D. Walsh as named by "Mr. Uhler, without describing it," adding that "The name 'spretus' means 'despised', and refers apparently to its having been hitherto despised or overlooked by Entomologists".[8] Walsh does not provide a description of the species, except for female wing length, as well as some aspects of biology, ecology, and control. Some entomologists credit the authority for the binomial Caloptenus spretus to C. Thomas,[9] but fails on the Principle of Priority.[3][4] The treatment under the genus Melanoplus began in 1878 in publications by S. H. Scudder who pointed out the difference between the genus Caloptenus that he noted as being more correctly spelled Calliptenus and Melanoplus.[10][11][12]

The species is reported to have descended from the Rocky Mountains to the prairie in large numbers only in certain years, particularly in dry seasons, following westward wind currents. Outbreaks usually lasted two consecutive years. Although a great number of eggs were laid on the prairie during outbreak years, individuals hatched from these eggs usually did not thrive, a condition that has been attributed to the lack of adaptation of this species to prairie habitats.[13] A 2004 molecular phylogenetic study that used mitochondrial DNA from specimens obtained from museums and fragments preserved in frozen glacial deposits confirms the placement in the genus Melanoplus and the distinctiveness as a species (ie not a migratory form of an extant species). It also identified the closest living relative as Melanoplus bruneri rather than M. sanguinipes as had been earlier surmised.[14]

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Illustration of egg-laying by females (1877)

The Rocky Mountain locust occurred along both sides of the Rocky Mountains and in most of the prairie areas. Breeding in sandy areas and thriving in hot and dry conditions, it has been hypothesized that they may have depended on the tall grass prairie plants during drier spells. The destruction of the prairie habitat and the incursion of new flora and fauna along with agricultural practices may have led to the extinction of the species.[15] Large numbers of grasshoppers including a large number of Rocky Mountain locusts entombed in the ice in the Rocky Mountains gave their name to the Grasshopper Glacier.


Rocky Mountain locusts caused farm damage in Maine from 1743 to 1756 and Vermont in 1797–1798.[16] The locusts became more of a problem in the 19th century, as farming expanded westward into the grasshoppers' favored habitat. Outbreaks of varying severity emerged in 1828, 1838, 1846, and 1855, affecting areas throughout the West. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–1857 and again in 1865, and Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and 1874.[16]

1875 cartoon by Henry Worrall showing Kansas farmers battling giant grasshoppers

The last major swarms of Rocky Mountain locust were between 1873 and 1877, when the locust caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and other states. One farmer reported that the locusts seemed "like a great, white glistening cloud, for their wings caught the sunshine on them and made them look like a cloud of white vapor" while another described the experience as "a big snowstorm, where the air was filled with enormous-size flakes.”[16] The locusts ate not only the grass and valuable crops, but also leather, wood, sheep's wool, and—in extreme cases—even clothes off peoples' backs. Trains were sometimes brought to a halt after skidding over large numbers of locusts run over on the rails.[17][15] As the swarms worsened, farmers attempted to control them using gunpowder, fires (sometimes dug in trenches to burn as many of the locusts as possible), smearing them with "hopperdozers", a type of plow device pulled behind horses that had a shield that knocked jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, even sucking them into vacuum cleaner–like contraptions, but all of these were ultimately ineffective in stopping the hordes.

Charles Valentine Riley, a Missouri entomologist, came up with a recipe for locusts seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. The recipe sold, but some stated that they "would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures."[16] Farmers finally responded in force to the swarm's destruction; an 1877 Nebraska law said that anyone between the ages of 16 and 60 had to work at least two days eliminating locusts at hatching time or face a $10 fine. That same year Missouri offered a bounty of $1 a bushel for locusts collected in March, 50 cents a bushel in April, 25 cents in May, and 10 cents in June. Other Great Plains states made similar bounty offers. In the 1880s, farmers had recovered sufficiently from their locust woes to be able to send carloads of corn to flood victims in Ohio. They also switched to such resilient crops as winter wheat, which matured in the early summer, before locusts were able to migrate. These new agricultural practices effectively reduced the threat of locusts and greatly contributed to the species' downfall.[16]

It has been hypothesized that plowing and irrigation by settlers as well as trampling by cattle and other farm animals near streams and rivers in the Rocky Mountains destroyed their eggs in the areas they permanently lived, which ultimately caused their demise.[18] For example, reports from this era suggest that farmers killed over 150 egg cases per square inch while plowing, harrowing or flooding.[18]: 11–12  It appeared that this species lived and reproduced in the prairie only temporarily during swarming years, with each generation being smaller than the previous one and swarming ever further from the Rocky Mountains,[19] while the permanent breeding grounds of this species seemed to be restricted to an area somewhere between 3 and 3,000 square miles of sandy soils near streams and rivers in the Rockies, which coincided with arable and pastoral lands exploited by settlers.[18]

Because locusts are a form of grasshopper that appear when grasshopper populations reach high densities, it was theorized that M. spretus might not be extinct, that "solitary phase" individuals of a migratory grasshopper might be able to turn into the Rocky Mountain locust given the right environmental conditions; however, breeding experiments using many grasshopper species in high-density environments failed to invoke the famous insect. The status of M. spretus as a distinct species was confirmed by a 2004 DNA analysis of North American species of the genus Melanoplus.[14]

Melanoplus spretus was formally declared extinct by the IUCN in 2014.[1] It has been suggested that the now critically endangered Eskimo curlew fed on the locust during its spring migration and that its extinction may have added to the pressures on already declining curlew populations including hunting and the conversion of its grassland habitat to agriculture.[20][21]

In culture[edit]

Inscription above the door of the Grasshopper Chapel

Assumption Chapel in Cold Spring, Minnesota, was established as a Christian pilgrimage shrine (German: Wahlfahrtsort)[22] (German: Gnadenkapelle)[23][24] in 1877 by German-American Catholic pioneer farmers, supposedly to keep away future locust plagues similar to those they had faced in both the 1850s and the 1870s. The Feast Day of St. Magnus of Füssen, who is traditionally known in Southern Germany as one of the protectors of farmers from thunderstorms and plagues of vermin, on September 6 was locally celebrated as "Grasshopper Day".[25]

The 1877 pilgrimage chapel dedicated to St. Boniface in nearby St. Augusta, Minnesota dates from the same era and was built for exactly the same reason.[26] There is a similar local tradition of pilgrimages to the shrine on June 5th, the Feast Day of St. Boniface, an English Benedictine missionary, Bishop, and martyr instrumental to the Christianisation of the Germanic peoples; and who is still revered as the "Apostle to the Germans", Patron Saint of the Germanosphere and the German diaspora.[27]

A fictionalized description of the devastation created by Rocky Mountain locusts in the 1870s can be found in the 1937 novel On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her description was based on actual incidents in western Minnesota during the summers of 1874 and 1875 as the locusts destroyed her family's wheat crop.[28]

Another vivid portrayal of the depredations of the locust can be found in Ole Edvart Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth, based in part on his own experiences and those of his wife's family.[29]

In 2018, a chamber opera about the Rocky Mountain locust named Locust: The Opera premiered in Wyoming, USA. The libretto for the opera was written by professor and author Jeffrey Lockwood who adapted it from his book Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.[30][31]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Hochkirch, A. (2017) [errata version of 2014 assessment]. "Melanoplus spretus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2014: e.T51269349A111451167.
  2. ^ "NatureServe Explorer 2.0". Retrieved 5 November 2022.
  3. ^ a b c Sutton et al. 1996, p. 1.
  4. ^ a b Gurney & Brooks 1959, p. 55.
  5. ^ "Melanoplus spretus, Rocky Mountain grasshopper". Animal Diversity Web. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Retrieved 2009-04-16.
  6. ^ Canada's History, October–November 2015, pages 43-44
  7. ^ Lockwood, Jeffrey (February 3, 2003). "The death of the Super Hopper". HighCountryNews. Retrieved 2022-02-07.
  8. ^ Walsh, B.D. (October 1866). "Grasshoppers and Locusts". The Practical Entomologist. II (1): 1–2.
  9. ^ Thomas, C. (1878). "On the Orthoptera collected by Elliott Coues, U.S.A., in Dakota and Montana, during 1873-74". Bulletin of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Department of the Interior. 4: 483–501.
  10. ^ Scudder, S.H. (1878). "Remarks on Caloptenus and Melanoplus, with a notice of the species found in New England". Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. 19: 281–286.
  11. ^ Scudder, SH (1878). "Remarks on Calliptenus and Melanoplus, with a notice of the species found in New England". Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. 19: 287.
  12. ^ Scudder, SH (1878). Entomological Notes. Vol. 6. p. 46.
  13. ^ Scudder, SH (1898). "Revision of the orthopteran group Melanoplii (Acridiidae), with special reference to North American forms". Proceedings of the United States National Museum. 20 (1124): 184. doi:10.5479/si.00963801.20-1124.1. and references therein
  14. ^ a b Chapco, W.; Litzenberger, G. (March 2004). "A DNA investigation into the mysterious disappearance of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, mega-pest of the 1800s". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 30 (3): 810–814. doi:10.1016/S1055-7903(03)00209-4. PMID 15012958.
  15. ^ a b Lockwood, Jeffrey A.; Debrey, Larry D. (1990). "A Solution for the Sudden and Unexplained Extinction of the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae)". Environmental Entomology. 19 (5): 1194–1205. doi:10.1093/ee/19.5.1194.
  16. ^ a b c d e Lyons, Chuck (5 February 2012). "1874: The Year of the Locust". HistoryNet. Retrieved 2015-06-17.
  17. ^ First Annual Report of the United States Entomological Commission for the year 1877 relating to the Rocky Mountain Locust. Washington. 1878. p. 274.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  18. ^ a b c Lockwood, Jeffrey A. (2004). Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-7382-0894-7.
  19. ^ Thomas, C. (1878). "On the Orthoptera collected by Dr. Elliott Coues, U.S.A., in Dakota and Montana, during 1973–74". Bulletin of the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. 4. Department of the Interior: 485–501.
  20. ^ Gollop, J.B.; Barry, T. W.; Iverson, E. H. (1986). Eskimo Curlew: a vanishing species?. Saskatchewan Natural History Society.
  21. ^ "Threatened and Endangered Species. Eskimo Curlew" (PDF). US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 January 2009.
  22. ^ Fr. Robert J. Voigt (1991), The Story of Mary and the Grasshoppers, Cold Spring, Minnesota. Pages 17.
  23. ^ Fr. Robert J. Voigt (1991), The Story of Mary and the Grasshoppers, Cold Spring, Minnesota. Pages 28.
  24. ^ Gross, Stephen John (April 2006). "The Grasshopper Shrine at Cold Spring, Minnesota: Religion and Market Capitalism among German-American Catholics" (PDF). The Catholic Historical Review. 92 (2): 215–243. doi:10.1353/cat.2006.0133. S2CID 159890053.
  25. ^ Gross, Stephen (2006). "The Grasshopper Shrine at Cold Spring, Minnesota: Religion and Market Capitalism among German-American Catholics". The Catholic Historical Review. 92 (2): 215–243. ISSN 0008-8080. JSTOR 25027056.
  26. ^ Janice Wedl, O.S.B. (2005), A Dwelling Place for God: The History of St. Mary, Help of Christians Parish, St. Augusta, Minnesota, North Star Press, St. Cloud, Minnesota. Pages 110-113.
  27. ^ Fr. Robert J. Voigt (1991), The Story of Mary and the Grasshoppers, Cold Spring, Minnesota. Page 25.
  28. ^ Yoon, Carol Kaesuk (23 April 2002). "Looking Back at the Days of the Locust". The New York Times. Retrieved 2015-04-01.
  29. ^ Curley, Edwin A. (2006) [1875]. "Introduction". Nebraska 1875: Its Advantages, Resources, and Drawbacks. Introduction by Richard Edwards. U of Nebraska Press. p. xvii. ISBN 978-0-8032-6468-7.
  30. ^ "You Heard That Right. An Opera About Locusts". Wyoming Public Media. 2018-09-14. Retrieved 2022-12-27.
  31. ^ Locust - The Opera, retrieved 2022-12-27

General references[edit]