The thunder and lightning storm that swept across Anchorage in early August was unlike anything I’d experienced in my 38 years of living here and held my rapt attention. It began, for me, with a mass of dark, foreboding clouds spread north to northeast across the sky beyond Cook Inlet, accompanied by distant rolls of thunder.
Those low rumbles helped to explain the earlier behavior of my dog, who ran around the yard in an agitated manner, lifting her head while barking and yowling at something I couldn’t see or hear or otherwise perceive.
Denali must have sensed the oncoming storm long before me.
Here in west Anchorage, the sky grew ominously dark as the squall approached, the low rumbles growing louder and changing in nature, until they became more of a booming crack and roar. Then I saw the lightning, a jagged flash across the dark grayness. Soon after that it began to rain, lightly at first. More lightning split the sky, the thunder even louder, the wind picking up.
Minutes later the wind was blowing hard, the rain falling harder, a torrential downpour. I later heard that more than a half-inch of rain fell in less than an hour’s time. While I watched from the open front door, five bolts of lightning flashed brilliantly, more than I’ve ever seen here. It was, in a word, exhilarating.
Over the next few days, that thunderstorm was a common theme in conversations with neighbors and friends. But for me it was simply part one of a two-part drama.
Most people likely wouldn’t get excited by part two or even notice it. I consider myself lucky that I made the discovery. Many days I likely would have overlooked it.
On the morning after the storm, while strolling through the neighborhood with Denali, I noticed an orange mass of some kind. It spread off and on for twenty or thirty feet along the edge of the street, where water drains.
From a distance the “stained” area reminded me of a fungus or mold, that sort of thing. But when I got close, it turned out to be the accumulated bodies of many tiny insects. Each body was roughly the shape of a grain of rice, but less than half the size. And, as I mentioned, they were orange.
Some of the bodies were heaped into small piles, others were scattered around. As I kneeled in close, I noticed that some of the insect forms were leaping about, much like leaf hoppers do. This initially led me to believe I was looking at adult insects. But they didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen.
What could they be?
I removed my smartphone from a pocket and took a couple of pictures, then decided I should take a video, to show the jumping forms.
Resuming our stroll, Denali and I turned up the street where I live. And three houses away, I saw another orange mass, this one spread across the driveway. Again I peered in close and took a picture. But this time I studied the small, orange, rice-like forms carefully enough to see that some were writhing in a slow-motion, soft-bodied fashion, much like you’d imagine an extremely tiny worm or caterpillar or grub might do.
All of this seemed fascinating, in a squirmy kind of way.
I also noticed a birch tree nearby, much as birches stood above the first orange mass.
What the heck is going on? I wondered.
I speculated that the larval forms had been on the birches until washed off the trees to the ground by the previous night’s pounding rain, then concentrated into piles by runoff.
Back home, I went right to my computer and emailed a description of what I’d found, along with an image, to someone I know in the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service program. I also sent the information and image to local gardening columnist Jeff Lowenfels.
Jeff was the first to provide some answers. In response to my question “What are they?” he responded “Some type of gall midge in larval stage!!”
A gall, for those unfamiliar with the term, is essentially an abnormal growth or swelling of plant tissue, for instance leaves. Based on my online search, galls may be caused by bacteria, fungi, or nematodes (round worms). Or they may form in response to insects and mites.
The larval form of gall midges live in leaves and flowers and in their living they cause enough irritation—or damage—to create abnormal growths.
All of this was informative. But the best, by far, was yet to come. Jeff also sent me a link to a Science News online article, titled “How these tiny insect larvae leap without legs” (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/how-these-tiny-insect-larvae-leap-without-legs).
It turns out that the leaping forms I’d seen were not adult insects, but the larvae. And the sciencenews.org story that Jeff forwarded me explained how they propelled themselves through the air. As writer Susan Milius notes in her opening sentence, “No legs? No problem. Some pudgy insect larvae can still jump up to 36 times their body length. Now high-speed video reveals how.”
She continues, “First, a legless, bright orange Asphondylia gall midge larva fastens its body into a fat, lopsided O by meshing together front and rear patches of microscopic fuzz. The rear part of the larva swells, and starts to straighten like a long, overinflating balloon. The fuzzy surfaces then pop apart. Then like a suddenly released spring, the larva flips up and away in an arc of somersaults . . . “
It turns out that Milius, a life sciences writer, was reporting what she had learned in a scientific paper that appeared in the “Journal of Experimental Biology” in August 2019. The story of how researchers discovered the larvae’s jumping mechanism is in its own way fascinating and involves a chance discovery in a lab, microscopic studies, and high-speed video technology that showed the insect’s “latch-and-spring” system in action. I’ll refer readers to that web link for a more detailed discussion.
Here I’ll stick with my own pedestrian discovery of an insect marvel, one that came to my attention because I happened to notice an unusually colored mass along the edge of a street.
This is one of the things I most love about spending time outdoors, in the company of wild nature: the surprises and wonders that await us, even in the places we’ve inhabited for decades. And even in places that we don’t consider “wild,” for instance a residential neighborhood, and along the edges of a paved street to boot.
The larvae’s jumping ability, and the mechanism that enables it, was unusual—and sophisticated—enough to gain the attention of an entire team of researchers. And yet what seems extraordinary when scientists take an in-depth look at the insect and its jumping mechanics turns out to be an ordinary part of our world, mostly overlooked or ignored by us humans, maybe even treated by some folks as a pest.
As with so much in life, the more we learn about something (or someone, some being), the more likely we are to be amazed.
As girlfriend Jan Myers texted me after she’d read the online article, “Ain’t nature grand?”
Grand indeed, whether enthralling storm or minuscule and even pesky stuff. One might even say miraculous.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskans Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.