“Gigantic Grasshoppers” might sound like the title of a vintage 1950s big-bug horror movie. But it’s not. It is the true story of a real-life encounter with big hoppers while on a tropical excursion. I know – I was there!
Recently, I participated in an “Odysseys Unlimited” tour of Costa Rica sponsored by the Purdue Alumni Association. It was a wonderful experience. We visited volcanic mountains, tropical rain forests, cloud forests, and the beaches of the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
During our travels, we were introduced to the agriculture of Costa Rica, including plantations of bananas and sugarcane. We visited a coffee estate, learned about the coffee industry, and tipped a cup or two of the caffeine-laced beverage brewed from the roasted beans. There were also fields of pineapples, melons, papayas, and yuccas. We saw zebu cattle on flatland pastures, as well as on mountainsides so steep that the hooved animals had to graze while walking around, rather than trying to climb up or down the formidable inclines.
The plant life of Costa Rica was lush, even though we were there during the dry season. I just couldn’t help but notice that plants most of us call “houseplants” were growing wild and to gigantic sizes. Orchids were abundant. The view of the verdant plant life as we walked on the hanging bridges of Monteverde was breathtaking.
The plants were great, but I have to admit that it was the wildlife that really attracted my attention. There are some half-million species of animals in Costa Rica, and that is about 4 percent of all the animal species in the world. We saw all kinds of birds, including parrots, toucans, and egrets, and five species of hummingbirds. One hummingbird species, the Ruby throated, just happened – like us human tourists – to be spending the winter in Costa Rica before coming to the U.S. during our summer.
We saw crocodiles and caymans, large iguanas, and an occasional venomous snake. Two types of mammals were real crowd pleasers – two- and three- toed sloths. They were very sloth-like as they spent the day napping high in the trees.
On the other hand, monkeys – white-faced, spider, and howler – were busy swinging through the treetops as they feasted on young leaves. We were treated to a spectacular display by a troop of white-faced monkeys as they leaped from the trees on one side of the canal to the trees on the opposite side. Not a single one landed in the water during the nearly 20-foot jump. Admittedly, some of the primate visitors watching from the boat were holding their breaths in anticipation of a splash.
Neotropical habitats, such as the one we were visiting, are famous for their insect life, including leaf-cutter and army ants, and butterflies, such as blue morphos, longwings, and clearwings. We were able to observe the ants on most of our walks. We observed butterflies up close in butterfly houses, and in the wild as we boated along the canals near the Caribbean shore of Costa Rica.
But beautiful butterflies and lines of flag-waving leaf-cutter ants aside, the real insect star of our tour was a 6-inch grasshopper. This behemoth of the grasshopper world is found in Central and South America. Its scientific name is Tropidacris cristata, and is known by the appropriate common name of giant grasshopper. Locally, it is often incorrectly called a giant brown cricket.
We first saw one of these grasshoppers clinging high atop a light pole during daylight hours. That evening, another was spotted on the railing of the hotel where we stayed. Jungle John, a member of our group, captured the grasshopper in his hat for up close and personal observation during the dinner that some members of the tour group were sharing in the hotel restaurant. We were impressed, but apparently no more so than the kitchen staff of our hotel! Shortly after we looked at the grasshopper, we heard shouts coming from the kitchen area. A staffer came out and called me into the kitchen, where one of the staff was holding another giant grasshopper, much to the consternation of at least one kitchen worker.
The next day, as we boarded the bus for another adventure, we had a short lesson on the giant grasshopper. Because of its size and brightly colored back wings, it is often mistaken for a bird while in flight. Needless to say, our intrepid group of travelers was awed by one of the largest insects in the world.
After we had all observed the gigantic grasshopper, I took it outside the bus and released it. As it flew away, a person or two in the tour group shouted, “Pura Vida!” The widely used expression in Costa Rica loosely translates to “Have a good life!”