Red-Legged Grasshopper

Melanoplus femurrubrum

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Image of a red-legged grasshopper.
The red-legged grasshopper is a type of short-horned grasshopper. These small insects are an important food for Missouri’s wild game birds.
Shelly Cox
Family

Acrididae (short-horned grasshoppers) in the order Orthoptera (grasshoppers, katydids, crickets)

Description

The red-legged grasshopper is variable in color and can include shades of red-brown, yellow, dark brown, green, and olive green. The hind legs are bright red or yellowish and have a black herringbone pattern. This and other short-horned grasshoppers are part of a larger group called spur-throated grasshoppers: there is a little pointy "spur" between the bases of the forelegs. 

When startled, these grasshoppers can fly for distances of 40 feet. Their flight is fast and even; they fly about a yard above the vegetation.

Similar species: There are nearly 250 species in genus Melanoplus in North America north of Mexico, and it can be very difficult to distinguish among these close relatives without going into details of anatomical structures and form. If you need an exact identification, you will probably need to consult an expert.

Learn more about this and other short-horned grasshoppers on their group page.

Size

Length: to about 1 inch.

Habitat and conservation

A species of grassy and weedy places, particularly sunny, moist, low areas. They can be found in meadows and prairies, vacant lots, yards, along roadsides, in river flood plains, and in cultivated fields, old fields, and crop borders.

Foods

Both adults and nymphs feed on a variety of grasses and other plants. Among forbs, legumes and composites are preferred (including trefoils, sweetclover, vetches, dandelion, chicory, goldenrods, and ragweed). When food is scarce, as during droughts, this species develops longer wings and readily disperses to new areas.

image of Red-Legged Grasshopper Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide (throughout most of North America).

Status

Common; abundant. The US Department of Agriculture recognizes this species as a crop pest that can damage alfalfa, clover, soybeans, tobacco, various grains such as oats and corn, and vegetables such as beans, beets, cabbage, and potatoes. They also damage forage grasses. The amount of crop damage they cause varies year to year as their populations fluctuate. Often, they stick to waste lands and feed on weeds and scrub grasses.

Life cycle

The female deposits several egg masses in the soil. Each egg mass can contain up to about 20 eggs. The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring. The nymphs will reach adult size by August or early September.

Human connections

Across the continent, especially in northern states and in southern portions of Canada, this is one of the most commonly encountered species of grasshoppers. So for many people, it is the first thing they think of when they hear the word "grasshopper." That kind of makes it iconic.

Poultry tapeworms and other poultry parasites use this species as an intermediate host, so chickens, turkeys, and other poultry that eat these grasshoppers can potentially acquire these parasites. Remember that various flies, worms, slugs, snails, ants, beetles, and more can be vectors for poultry parasites, too.

Ecosystem connections

Wild game birds such as turkey and quail consume these grasshoppers, which can at times be abundant.

As with domestic fowl, wild fowl can acquire parasites from eating these grasshoppers. Fortunately, unless the infestation is severe or the bird weakened, the parasites don’t usually cause death.

Our great abundance of birds require a diversity of insect foods. This grasshopper, like other herbivore insects, are an important way of converting plant nutrients into a form that birds and other insectivores can eat.