Arthropods 7

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Southern California Arthropods (Mostly) #7: Leafhoppers (Order Homoptera)
© W.P. Armstrong 15 April 2009
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Planthopper Family (Flatidae)

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides), an epiphytic member of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae), growing on the limbs of pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana). The next image shows a small green flower of Spanish moss and a striking little insect from Australia.

Close-up view of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) bearing a small, bright green flower. The unusual insect in photo is a planthopper (Siphanta acuta) sometimes called "torpedo bug." It is 6 mm (1/4 inch) in length with a wing venation resembling a leaf. The insect color is remarkably similar to the flower. The name "torpedo bug" is derived from its leaping ability which may exceed two feet (50 cm). This insect was introduced into southern California in the 1980s from Australia.

A planthopper called the "torpedo bug" (Siphanta acuta). It is 6 mm (1/4 inch) in length. The image was taken with a hand-held Sony T-9 using the built-in flash.

A planthopper called the "torpedo bug" (Siphanta acuta). It is 6 mm (1/4 inch) in length. The image was taken with a hand-held Sony T-9 using the built-in flash.

Leafhopper Family (Cicadellidae)

The leaf hoppers (Cicadellidae) includes many species of small jumping insects that superficially resemble miniature cicadas. They are abundant on the leaves of plants, but because of the remarkable camouflage of some species, they are not easily seen. On a warm summer night in southern California, they are commonly attracted to lights.

How many leafhoppers can you spot in this image?
Click on the photograph to see the exact number.

Cicada Family (Cicadidae)

A cicada with camouflaged markings. This insect belongs to the order Homoptera, along with aphids, spittle bugs and the remarkable lanternfly. Males are difficult to spot even when producing their high frequency mating call.

Automimicry In The Homoptera

In automimicry, an animal mimics parts of its own body. For example, some snakes have a tail that resembles their head and a head that resemble their tail. A predatory bird swooping down on its prey might miss its capture when the prey suddenly moves in an unexpected (backwards) direction.
Automimicry is well developed in Malaysian lanternflies of the large insect order Homoptera. Since they are not true flies of the order Diptera, the word fly is not written as a separate word. [If they were true flies, their common name would be written as lantern fly.] Some of these remarkable insects have tails with false eyes and antennae, and heads with false tails. The false tail is actually a long extension of the head between the eyes. What appears to be the front is really the rear end and vice versa. When the insect moves it appears to jump backwards.

A lanternfly (Pyrops candelaria) native to the rain forests of Thailand.

Notice the elongate extension of the head between the eyes. In some species of lanternflies, the head mimics the tail and vice versa, a good example of automimicry. The elongate head of lanternflies was once thought to emit light, but this is not the case.

A striking South American lanternfly (Phosphora lanternaria). The enlarged head extension mimics the head of a small alligator. Of course, this is not an example of automimicry. Some authorities have suggested that the reptilian head may ward off an attack by potential predators of this plant-eating insect.

The front end of the gator lanternfly (Phosphora lanternaria) appears formidable with a large head and teeth markings. Although it looks ferocious, this is a plant-eating insect.

In addition to resembling an alligator with teeth, the head of this South American lanternfly (Phosphora lanternaria) also resembles a peanut; however, it is doubtful that any adaptive advantage can be gained by mimicking a peanut. These mimics are the derivation of the common names "gator" lanternfly and "peanut" lanternfly.

Spittle Bug Family (Aphrophoridae)

Spittle bug (Aphrophora sp.) on the stem of Artemisia californica.

Southern California spittle bugs belong to the genus Aphrophora in the spittle bug family (Aphrophoridae). In some references spittle bugs are placed in the family Cercopidae. They belong to the insect order Homoptera, along with aphids, leafhoppers and scale insects. The immature nymphs of spittle bugs feed on herbaceous stems and secrete a foaming froth that serves as a place of concealment and protection for the developing insects. The winged adults superficially resemble leafhoppers. A common species that makes its foam nest on conifers is A. permutata. Another common species found on many different plants throughout the state is A. annulata.

Cochineal Insect Family (Dactylopiidae)


  1. Evans, A.V. 2007. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. New York, New York.

  2. Hogue, C.L. 1993. Insects of the Los Angeles Basin. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

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