Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Today in history

via "The Writer's Almanac", and some independent rico-ga'ing research

On July 20 1875 (it says here. Other sources say 1874) the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. It was a swarm about 1,800 miles long, 110 miles wide, from Canada down to Texas.

When it came to swarms, the Rocky Mountain locust - scourge of the 1870s - still stands today as the undisputed champion of the world. Between 1873 and 1877, Melanophus spretus caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Nebraska and other states, chowing down on everything green and plenty else.

Its sky-blackening swarms hold a place in The Guinness Book of World Records under the heading ``greatest concentration of animals.''

``A swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts that flew over Nebraska on July 20-30, 1874, covered an area estimated at 198,000 square miles (almost twice the size of Colorado),'' the entry reads. ``The swarm must have contained at least 12.5 trillion insects with a total weight of 27.5 million tons.''

The last living Rocky Mountain locust was seen in 1902. One theory suggests that Melanophus spretus was inadvertently - although they would have happily done it consciously - eradicated by farmers digging up their breeding grounds to plant crops. There are stories of plows bringing up thousands of eggs.

``Western agriculture and the Rocky Mountain locust collided in time and space,'' Jeffrey Lockwood, a University of Wyoming entomologist says. ``Through one of the most spectacular coincidences in agricultural history, early agriculture basically destroyed the permanent breeding ground of the locusts.''

Plowing and irrigation, along with the decimation of Indian, bison and beaver populations, all contributed to the ultimate extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust, according to Lockwood.

Today, North America is the only continent in the world without a locust.


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