Whenever I do an outdoor singing insects program, coneheads are always the stars of the event.
Let’s start with the first question people ask: do they really have cone heads? Yes. The tops of their heads end in a cone shape, and, in fact, the shape and amount of black on the tip of that cone can identify the species!
For example, below you'll see the Sword-bearing Conehead, the Round-tipped Conehead, and the Nebraska Conehead - the three species you are most likely to encounter in NE Ohio.
Fortunately, their songs are a reliable way to identify them. The conehead species' songs in this recordings are in the same order as the photos above.
These are sizable katydids – around 2” long. Males songs are continuous or have short pauses between them, so their singing is much more apparent than that of katydids whose songs are short and intermittent. They’re also generally singing and feeding at or a little below eye level, so you have a good chance of seeing them sing.
Although well-hidden down in their vegetation by day, coneheads ascend their plants to sing and dine on seeds at night. Grass seeds on tall, thick stems are a very common food source for them, and those stems make very fine perches for singing.
Conehead females are somewhat larger than males, and they have long ovipositors for inserting their eggs in the crowns of plants. (Plant crowns, unlike tree crowns, are where stems grow up and roots grow down into the soil.)
The majority of the coneheads you will find in NE Ohio will be Sword-bearing Coneheads, as they are absolutely abundant throughout our area. A typical meadow with goldenrod and grasses can have a singing Sword-bearing Conehead every several feet in any direction.
As one goes west or southwest of Cleveland, Nebraska Coneheads become widespread as well. While occasionally found farther northeast, I rarely hear them east of Cleveland. Look and listen for this species in scattered shrubs as well as other vegetation in the meadow, and they’re also likely to be found in edge habitat. Sometimes they may even be just inside the woodland edge.
Round-tipped Coneheads have been steadily pushing northward from southern Ohio and are now all the way up to the south shore of Lake Erie. I’ve found them in every county in our region. They have reached the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s North Kingsville Sand Barrens, which is almost at the lake shore and not far from the Pennsylvania border. These strong fliers are slightly smaller than Sword-bearing Coneheads and are much more feisty.
Coneheads can be green or brown. Almost every Sword-bearing Conehead I’ve seen in our region has been green, but brown Nebraska Coneheads are somewhat common and Round-tipped Coneheads as just as likely to be brown as green. The two Round-tipped Coneheads below were both from the same Geauga County meadow.
You will find fascinating and very helpful information on the Singing Insects of North America website under “Coneheads.” Dr. Thomas Walker, the site's creator, wrote that “…all early juveniles of Neoconocephalus and Belocephalus are green, a few become brown during molts to late juvenile instars and the majority of those that become brown adults change during the final molt.” Therefore, a green nymph can molt into a green OR a brown adult!
And why are there two color possibilities? Their habitats are typically a mix of brown and green. Later in the season as grasses and other vegetation turn brown, there’s much less green in their immediate habitats and the brown individuals blend beautifully. Look how well this brown Round-tipped Conehead is concealed!
According to SINA, a predator who captures a green conehead will likely continue searching for green individuals. A brown conehead may be overlooked as a result. It’s difficult to search for two different colors at the same time, and I can testify that it takes a lot of effort. They’re hard enough to find as it is!
Coneheads begin singing at dusk and continue for hours unless temperatures get too chilly. Round-tipped Coneheads will sing in the late afternoon as well as at night, and Sword-bearing Coneheads may sing before dark late in the season when nights are getting too cold for them.
If you are leading an after-dark hike any time from the end of July through Labor Day weekend, listen for coneheads. If you and your hike participants can locate one - and especially if you can watch him sing – everyone will be delighted! This will be the one insect they definitely remember.
Listening in Nature post:
Singing Insects of North America: Coneheads