So maybe this fairy tale princess kissed a frog, not a grasshopper – but she would have realized something weird if she had gone to kiss a grasshopper instead.
No, grasshoppers don’t have lips. What they have are mouthparts that are eerily reminiscent of the differences between our own teeth (depending on how those teeth are used). Some are more like molars, made for chewing hard plant matter so it becomes digestible. Others look like incisors and are made to grab prey and tear flesh. Obviously, not all of these creatures nibble the grass in which they crawl and jump. Some are omnivorous or even carnivorous.
To find what do grasshoppers eat Previously, this meant either observing them in action – which is difficult when dealing with something that moves quickly – or dissecting them to discover their stomach contents. Dissection can be problematic when dealing with specimens of species that may be rare or even extinct. Researcher Chris Stockey from the University of Leicester in the UK, who led a study recently published in Methods in ecology and evolutionfound a better way.
“Dental topographic analysis measures the 3D shape of a food processing tool, whether it’s a tooth or in this case a mandible, similar to a map,” he told SYFY WIRE. “Different shapes reflect adaptations to different diets and these relationships are the same in most animals.”
When Stockey and his team compared the shapes of grasshopper mouthparts to mammalian teeth, they were able to tell which species ate what by comparing what was in their mouths to mammalian teeth created to eat the same type of thing. . Finding a match in the teeth of a mammal whose diet is known reveals what the grasshopper eats. Wavy surfaces, with a complex topography like that seen on molars, indicate that the insect is in plants. Sharper mouthparts mean a craving for flesh. You might think of them as your own molars and canines.
Corn dental topographic analysis was developed for mammals, it can be used on any type of mouthparts that resemble mammalian teeth and are used to process food before it is ingested. Its use on grasshoppers has now refuted some common assumptions about what they feed on. The researchers had already hypothesized what each species ate before taking a closer look. However, one thing that surprised them was that of the 45 grasshoppers they studied, it was mostly the smaller species that hunted worms or other insects.
What could this mean for the oldest common ancestor of existing grasshoppers? Unfortunately insects are notorious for not fossilizing well unless trapped in amber, but Stockey thinks there may have been herbivorous and carnivorous types long ago.
“The oldest grasshoppers are known from ‘molecular clocks,’ or models that estimate when groups evolved,” he said. “However, many of their close relatives at this time ate both plants and insects, so I imagine they also consumed both fairly early on.”
Stranger than the resemblance of grasshopper mouthparts to mammalian teeth is that about half a billion years ago grasshoppers and mammals are thought to have shared a common ancestor. This obviously had to be before what would become vertebrates and what would become invertebrates diverged. When the researchers analyzed the mouthparts, they saw what could only be morphological adaptations that some species had to develop to survive. When you have no control over what is around you to eat, you adapt or you die.
Being able to tell what grasshoppers were eating through the structure of their mouthparts has saved some truly fragile specimens. When you look at an exhibit in a museum, what you might not know is that there are huge archives beyond the areas where visitors are allowed. The entire Darwin collection is hiding somewhere behind the scenes. Dental topographic analysis means that whatever remains of now rare or extinct species need not be destroyed to find out what they fed on and how it affected the environments in which they lived.
“By analyzing their mouthparts with this technique, [we learn] on their diets and, importantly, incorporating them into broader analyzes of ecosystem functioning as a whole,” Stockey said. “Somehow we can bring them back to life.”