Grad Student Too Busy, Annoyed to Care about Giant Bugs in Basement

In graduate school, I rented a house with a few fellow students on a quiet, tree-lined street close to our university. To be quite honest, we spent very little social time together in this house. Most of our days, nights and weekends were spent in the lab, in the field, or in our offices, toiling away on our graduate research. We came home to sleep, grab a quick bite to eat, and maybe do a load of laundry.

In fact, when I think about the years that I lived in this group house, I have a hard time recalling what my roomies and I did together when we weren’t working. I do remember one raging Halloween party. This is not meant to be a slight on my roommates – they were lovely and interesting people – it’s just that we were all so busy and involved in our work.

So involved that, when thinking back now some ten years later, I’m stupefied that I didn’t give much pause or consideration to the annoying, alien creatures that had taken over our basement.

You see, our basement was infested with camel crickets — more specifically, greenhouse camel crickets (Diestrammena asynamora, photo above), native not to North America, but Asia.

I encountered these leggy, jumpy beasts on my regular forays to the basement to do laundry and yet never once did I pause and consider who they were or what might be so interesting about them.

Rather, I would carefully maneuver down the wobbly stairs into our musty basement carrying an overflowing basket of dirty laundry. I’d tiptoe over to the washing machine, trying to avoid squishing one underfoot. I’d annoyingly brush off the frass (the entomological term for their poop) that had accumulated on top of the machine and quickly get my load started before any jumped inside. I’d then sprint back upstairs, to the sounds of the washer filling and popcorn popping. Yet it wasn’t popcorn, just tens (maybe hundreds?) of camel crickets furtively jumping in the wake of my footsteps. I’d close the basement door behind me. Out of sight, out of mind.

Fortunately, over the last couple years, hundreds of citizen scientists seized a research opportunity that I as a too-focused grad student just flat-out ignored. Rather than quietly go about doing their laundry, our citizen scientists shared observations and photos of the camel crickets in their basements, sheds and crawl spaces.

Collectively, these citizen scientists helped build new knowledge about the distribution of a non-native species, knowledge that today is officially published in the scientific journal, PeerJ.

Epps MJ, Menninger HL, LaSala N, and Dunn RR. 2014. Too big to be noticed: Cryptic invasion of Asian camel crickets in North American houses. PeerJ 2: e523; DOI 10.7717/peerj.523

In the paper we share the first results from the Camel Cricket Census. We report that the greenhouse camel cricket (D. asynamora) is far more common than native, North American camel crickets (Ceuthophilus spp.) in and near homes east of the Mississippi.

Distribution of native Ceuthophilus spp. (black circles) vs. exotic Diestrammena spp camel crickets (white circles), based on photos and specimens submitted by citizen scientists.

Distribution of native Ceuthophilus spp. (black circles) vs. exotic Diestrammena spp camel crickets (white circles), based on photos and specimens submitted by citizen scientists.

Additionally, thanks to a few excellent photos taken by folks in the Northeast, we suggest that a second Asian species, Diestrammena japanica, not previously reported in the US, has become established in northeastern homes.

Comparing Diestrammena asynamora (A) to Diestrammena japanica (B). Photos contributed by citizen scientists.

Notice the differences in color patterns between Diestrammena asynamora (A) and Diestrammena japanica (B). Photos contributed by Camel Cricket Census citizen scientists.

Much still remains to be studied about the camel crickets silently lurking in and around our homes. What do they eat? How do they spread from house to house? Do the Asian species compete with native camel crickets? Where and when were the non-native species first introduced into homes? How widespread is D. japanica?

Please continue to share your observations and photos of camel crickets with us by participating in the Camel Cricket Census – we’re especially interested in photos and specimens of D. japanica.

And more importantly, continue to pay attention to the creatures you encounter as you go about your daily life. Exciting discoveries are waiting to be made in every basement, perhaps even behind every washing machine.

Header photo credit: Lauren Nichols, YourWildLife.org

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