One Jump Ahead

Illustration by Marieke Nelissen

Camel crickets can leap up to 60 times their body length.

Camel crickets are not just creepy,  they are full of surprises.

The most humbling yet also inspiring truth about our study of the natural world is not how much we know, but rather how infinitely much more we have left to learn. 

“It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, and we don’t even know what the picture is yet,” says Dr. Mary Jane Epps, an assistant professor of biology at Mary Baldwin University.

Illustration by Marieke Nelissen

Camel crickets can be the source of many childhood nightmares.

Take, for example, a creepy critter you may have encountered in your own home, a spindly legged, uninvited guest in your basement or garage with an unnerving tendency to make sudden, athletic leaps just as you lean in for a closer inspection. This is the camel cricket, also known as cave cricket, also known informally as “spider cricket” for the long, spidery legs and feelers that sometimes get the cricket wrongly confused for an arachnid. 

As a postdoctoral student, Epps became interested in studying these crickets while working in the laboratory of Rob Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University with an enthusiasm for citizen science. The lab was asking its large citizen-science network what kinds of organisms they were finding in their own homes. “And one of the things that came up repeatedly that was surprising was camel crickets,” says Epps. 

Camel crickets inhabit damp, dark, cool places, such as forests and caves. But Epps wanted to know why so many camel crickets were being reported in people’s homes. Further research led to an even greater surprise: What people were finding in their basements—sometimes in the hundreds—was a “weird, non-native species called the greenhouse camel cricket,” says Epps.

Yet according to the official literature, these crickets shouldn’t have been there. First reported in the U.S. sometime in the earlier part of the 20th century, “they hadn’t really been mentioned much since,” she says, and were considered a species that—on occasion—might be found in greenhouses. 

Instead, “What we found was that they were right under our noses and yet nobody had really realized they had spread all over the eastern half of the United States,” says Epps. “And we didn’t realize it until our citizen scientists took the time to look.”

The greenhouse camel crickets aren’t the only ones you’ll find in your house—there are native species as well. Named for the distinctively curved shape of their backs, camel crickets are not “true” crickets, but rather belong to their own family. They are harmless, though possibly a nuisance, and yet undeniably there is something about these (sometimes) cellar dwellers that seems to give plenty of people the creeps. Maybe it’s those spidery legs and that hunched, furtive posture. Maybe it’s the fact that, unlike the cheerily chirping field or house cricket, camel crickets make no noise. Maybe it’s the fact that they are nocturnal, secretive in habit, and like to lurk in ghostly, silent clusters in dark, dank places. Or maybe it’s the way “they will go from just sitting there to flinging themselves in the air willy-nilly without warning,” says Epps, “inevitably into your face.”

And then there’s this delightful tidbit: Camel crickets sometimes play host, says Epps, to a parasite known as the horsehair worm.

And if you squash the cricket, “these parasites will flee the body, and suddenly you will see this crazy long eerie white worm wriggling out, and it will keep coming and coming, and then you will have this spaghetti noodle wriggling on the floor next to your squashed cricket.”

“This is why you shouldn’t step on them,” she suggests.

But really, though, there is as much to be intrigued as unnerved by in the camel cricket. Take that leap, for example. Spider crickets can jump as much as 50 to 60 times their body length, and Dr. Rajat Mittal of the Johns Hopkins

University school of engineering studied the aerodynamics of their high flying spring and revealed that what, at actual speed, might elicit a surprised shriek in your basement is in slow motion a marvel of balletic grace and beauty.

And then there’s the camel crickets’ omnivorous diet. Not exactly the stuff of gourmet dreams, it includes organic detritus like dead bugs, leaves, and human skin flakes, but also might include what Epps calls “recalcitrant” food items that are hard to digest, like cardboard and fabric. But in fact, “we don’t really know much about their diet,” admits Epps, except that they appear to be “opportunistic scavengers on a wide range of detritus.” And an intriguing research project on which Epps collaborated found evidence that greenhouse camel crickets’ gut bacteria might even be capable of breaking down some industrial waste products.

 “These camel crickets have these other little critters living in their guts that actually could be really useful to us,” says Epps. “I always love to emphasize how little we know about the things living right under our noses and how much we have yet to discover about Virginia’s biodiversity.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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