Locusts represent an impressive example of migratory polyphenism, with high densities triggering a switch from a solitarious, shorter dispersal range, and sometimes greenish phenotype to a gregarious and sometimes darker form exhibiting behavioral, morphological and physiological traits associated with long-distance migratory swarms. While such polyphenism has been well documented in Locusta migratoria and Schistocerca gregaria, the extent to which other grasshoppers exhibit this type of migratory polyphenism is unclear. Anecdotally, the Chinese grasshopper, Oedaleus asiaticus, forms migratory swarms comprised mostly of a darker, brown-colored morph, but also exhibits a non-migratory green-colored morph that predominates at low densities. In a population in Inner Mongolia not currently exhibiting migratory swarms, we found that while green and brown O. asiaticus are found concurrently across our sampled range, only brown grasshoppers were found in high densities. Differences between field-collected brown and green forms matched some but not key predictions associated with the hypothesis that the brown form is morphologically and physiologically specialized for gregarious migration. Controlling for body mass, brown forms had more massive thoraxes, abdomens and legs, and higher metabolic rates, but not more flight muscle or lipid stores. Further, the brown and green grasshoppers did not differ in gregarious behavior, and neither would fly in multiple lab and field trials. Lab or field-rearing at high densities for one-to-multiple juvenile instars caused grasshoppers to exhibit some morphological traits predicted to benefit migration (larger wings and a shift in relative mass from abdomen to thorax), but did not change color or induce flight behavior. One hypothesis to explain these data is that a migratory form of O. asiaticus is partially triggered by high field densities, but that existing ecological conditions blocked full expression of such traits (and outbreak swarms). Alternatively, color variation in this species may more tightly linked to other functions in this species such as crypsis or disease resistance, and mechanisms other than late-juvenile rearing density (e.g. genetic variation, maternal effects) may be more critical for promoting variation in color and/or migratory polyphenism.
- Migratory polyphenism