The following is a guest post by Rob Dunn, with photos by his graduate school office mate Piotr Naskrecki, AKA Piotr the Great. This post is also cross-posted at the new and improved yourwildlife.org, the hub for the Dunn Lab and collaborators’ citizen science program.

These creatures can be startling, but they are harmless. And so, please turn off the light and quietly close the door. They come in peace, you should too.

I have to be quiet so they don’t hear me. This will be short. We know so little. I have said this before. We know so little. We know so little that you can send out a survey and when you get the responses realize you have accidentally discovered that aliens are living all around you.

They have taken over, of all places, our basements, crawlspaces and closets, which, it is fair to say, we often don’t even use that much. As invasions go, this seems friendly, a move toward coexistence. Yet, these aliens fling themselves at you, out of the dark. They don’t make a sound except for the thump of their bodies against the wall, the modest bumping about. They can barely see. They feel their way. You might call it blindness except that they sense so much more with their sweeping antennae, antennae much longer than their bodies, than we do in the dark recesses downstairs. No one knows when they first arrived. They had been reported in an announcement here and there, but not in our houses, not where we live, not at first1. Then, when they were seen in houses, many of the reports were anecdotes2 and, as you well know, much of what we see on the Internet is not to be believed. And even had we heeded the notices, they could not have prepared us for what we have recently discovered.  The extent of their arrival seems to have gone missed. Or at least it had gone missed until we started to ask people questions about what they had found in their houses and they began to answer with their stories and even more blurry photos3.

It was the sheer number of photos that caught my attention. I began to see how many basements had been taken over, and to believe the reports. We need to know more though. We want you to go down into your basement and, very carefully, see if they are there. Be careful4. You might hear them before you see them, or even feel them against your body, their legs prickle the skin when they touch you, but their brown speckled bodies are soft. If they are there, we want you to be able to tell us, it is the only way we are going to know. Please, go into your basement, go down and check. If you don’t see them, if they really aren’t anywhere to be found, we need to know that too. We need to know if there are limits to their spread. They could be everywhere, but maybe they are not, maybe you are beyond their range, beyond their way of living. I’m not. I can hear them now, beneath me, bumping against things, flinging themselves again and again, through the dark.

Meanwhile, I don’t know much about them. I don’t know what they eat—dirt, paint, air?—but they are breeding, there are more of them all the time5. You can fill out the survey and let us know if you’ve seen them too, then at least we will know where they are. I will keep this short to give you time. I’ll keep it short because I can hear them coming, and I want to see them because I find these aliens fascinating. I can’t look away. To convince you of their small grandeur, I have included- at the bottom of the post- a slideshow of this alien life. The slideshow is composed of photos by Piotr Naskrecki, author of the new book Relics. In a way, these creatures, the camel or cave crickets as they are called (all of the family Rhaphidophoridae), are relics too. They are native to the ancient holes of the Earth, but persist finding ways to make our buildings seem like home. Of course, they don’t know they are doing so. They just follow their long antennae, chasing the satisfaction of each of their primitive urges.

Examine the images. They include native species, species that lived in the dark holes of North America long before humans started digging dark holes. But they also include species new to North America, aliens like us. So far, this map shows what we know based on our surveys.  The red dots are the locations of the people who have stood up and said, yes, yes, it is I; I have them, I am not alone. The white dots are places where although people remain vigilant, no crickets have been seen, not yet anyway, not as a part of this survey.

Modeled distribution of camel crickets in North America [Credit: Matt Fitzpatrick, UMCES]

When we began to have reports of camel crickets in basements (And, also garages and quite a few closets), we assumed the majority of the records would be of one of the native species—of which there exist more than a dozen, each of them relatively poorly known and specific in their ways of living—but when we asked for photos of the suspected crickets, all of them in the eastern U.S. so far have been a Japanese species. The scientists have called it “Diestrammena asynamora,” which some people say means “lunges out of the dark with vigor” though that isn’t true.  This alien species was known to be present in the U.S, at first in greenhouses and then more recently in basements, but, it seems, no one knew quite how common it was until we began to ask people to look around their houses.

The only point for which we so far have a photo of a native species is in a basement from Regina, Saskatchewan in Canada7. What does this mean? Do Japanese camel crickets hate Canadians? Are the native camel crickets, of which there are many species, missing? OR have just not sampled enough, in the right seasons or neighborhoods? We don’t really know. This is where you can help, by letting us know what you have seen, by reporting the aliens (and also the natives), where they are and are not. You can file your own field reporter notes here, and in doing so participate in science, simply by telling us (and showing us with photos if you can) what is already living in your home. We don’t need to know all of your secrets. We just want to know about the crickets.

Once you have completed the survey, the fun begins. No one has ever studied this alien in the United States in any detail and even the few studies that exist are of greenhouses not of basements8. Whether you are a hundred years old, or eight, if you take notes on where it reproduces, what it eats, what time of day it forages or, frankly, absolutely anything else, they will be the first such reports from the field. You can make your observations on the survey form, or you can make them here. Whatever they are, however astute or ridiculous, they will be new.  Some days you have to travel to make a big discovery, other days it leaps at you out of the dark.

As for the crickets, they mean no harm. They do no harm. They breath and leap. They tap around in the dark for their wants and find if not happiness, at least each other and whatever else their genes implore them to search out. They eat what nothing else wants9. Or at least that is what they had done until the real aliens, arrived, the ones new to this story who changed things by bumping around clumsily in the dark, with flashlights and fowl language. If you are a human and find a camel cricket in your basement, do not be alarmed. But if you are camel cricket and find a human in your attic, please, please, be careful. They rarely seem to come in peace.


A Gallery of Cave Crickets

[portfolio_slideshow]
photos by Piotr Naskrecki


Table of evolutionary contents: Here you can skip ahead or backward to the other chapters in the story of the other species in our daily lives, whether they be the cow, the chicken, the hamster, bacteria (on Lady Gaga, on feet, in bathrooms, as influenced by antimicrobial wipes, as probiotics, in the appendix), pigeons and urban gardens, house sparrows (to be published next week, stay tuned), predators, diseases, dust mites, basement dwellers, lice, field mice, virusesyeast, the fungus that produces penicillin, bedbugs, houseflies, or something more.

Or for the big picture of how Rob thinks these stories come together to make us who and who we are, check out The Wild Life of Our Bodies. Rob Dunn is a writer and evolutionary biologist in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University. Find him on twitter at robrdunn. Find him in person somewhere in Europe with his family while they are all on sabbatical.

Co-posted at yourwildlife.org10

Scientific Endnotes

1- The general sense seems to often have been that these organisms only live in greenhouses (despite reports to the contrary). For example, in 1976, W.P. McCafferty and J. L. Stein reported that at least in Indiana this creature had only been found in greenhouses. Indiana Endisfera (Orthoptera). The Great Lakes Entomologist. 9:23-56. Also reported it as only having been found in greenhouses, and only in the Northeastern U.S. and southern Canada.

2- They seem to have first been reported in cellars in 1920 by Morse in the Proceedings of the Boston Natural History Society. They were then found again in a cellar in Philadelphia in 1943, although both instances seemed at the time like isolated cases. Rehn, J. A. (http://biostor.org/reference/70527).

3- Along with a few really good ones too (http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourwild_life/sets/72157628747046529/).

4- You do not want to accidentally hurt them. They are delicate and lovely and, much like ET, come in peace.

5- The little we know about them does actually include some of the secrets of their romantic life. To loosely quote… Sex takes place in the dark. The male creeps backward beneath the female and attaches a nuptial gift to her genital opening. When the pair separates, the female will eat the nuptial gift. At least in greenhouses, breeding goes on year round, whether the same happens in houses is unknown. It takes seven months for mature camel crickets to develop from eggs, which is to say that many of the big crickets in your basement may well be more than a year old. From Vickery and Kevin. 1983.

6- Though also Tachycines asynamorous, Locusta marmorate and Diestrammena marmorate. Systematists can be fickle too.

7- Although Piotr Naskrecki, who hasn’t filled out the survey, reports he also has a native species in his basement, Ceuthophilus maculatus.

8-Perhaps the best description of what we know is the following, published by Morse in 1920. I have included a long excerpt because I liked the description so much. It is as close to tender as a scientist is allowed to get without being teased by friends…

“This insect is a native of eastern Asia, and was probably introduced into this country and Europe with importations of plants and bulbs among the wrappings of which it would be likely to hide itself and able to travel long distances.It is a rather large, slenderly built Cave-cricket with extremely long and delicate antennae, palpi, and hind legs, in color daintily varied with dark markings on a pale background. It lives in greenhouses, conservatories and cellars, hiding by day beneath boards and boxes and in sheltered corners, becoming more active at night. I have seen as many as a hundred individuals of various ages resting within a space of four square feet on the wall of a greenhouse coal-bin, perfectly quiet save for the occasional waving motion of the long antennae. Unlike Roaches, it does not crawl into narrow crevices or beneath boards or boxes lying close to the ground, but requires considerable space to provide for free movement of the long legs and antennae. When disturbed, it makes prodigious leaps, sometimes two or three in succession, alighting with a thump. Though alert, it is easily captured, provided the waving, hair-trigger sensitive antennae are not inadvertently touched, when response is instantaneous. Adults and young may be found at any season of the year, as might be expected under the conditions of its habitat, but mature individuals appear to be more numerous in the autumn. It is very doubtful, however, whether it is able to survive the winter out of doors.”

9- As one recent study put it, “What do crickets eat in the wild is a simple question, yet is one of our enduring mysteries of cave cricket biology. They act as scavengers, eating whatever is smelly enough to get their attention and soft enough to chew.”

10- The study is one of many associated with yourwildlife.org, a project that aims to understand the ecology and evolution of the species in your daily life by helping you do science. The collaborators on this study are Piotr Naskrecki at Harvard University, Matt Fitzpatrick at the University of Maryland, Steve Frank in the Department of Entomology at North Carolina State University and Holly Menninger, our director of public science, along with Michelle Trautwein, also in the Department of Entomology. Michelle Trautwein and Piotr will be working to use samples that result from this project to understand the evolution of this introduced cricket, an evolution that may be going on in your house. Michelle will also soon be launching a related project, “Flies around the World” which aims to understand the species of flies and around our house, whether they be dangerous to you or necessary, as pollinators, to your plants (or something in between). Stay tuned for flies. In the meantime, check your crickets.

*And finally, special thanks to Katlin Mooneyham for locating and digging up those dusty old monographs and scientific journal articles cited in this post.