The Asian 'Greenhouse' camel cricket is now more common in cellars and basements than any native camel cricket species. This Q&A with ecologist Mary Jane Epps asks how this happened, and why we didn't notice sooner.
By Amy McDermott. Photographs by Lauren Nichols
Have you seen this cricket? If you live along the Eastern Seaboard, chances are, you’re housemates.
In the US, the Asian ‘Greenhouse' camel cricket (Diestrammena asynamora) has invaded, and is now far more common in basements, cellars, and backyards, than our native camel cricket species. You'd think we would have noticed, but in fact, research on D. asynamora's spread has only begun. We still know very little about our spindly-legged rommies.
Dr. Mary Jane Epps, a postdoctoral researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh is leading the way in invading 'Greenhouse' camel cricket research. She headed up a project to survey citizen scientists across 39 states and over 2,000 households, asking “have you seen this cricket?” Citizen scientist participants submitted photographs as well as filling out the survey. Many could easily identify members of the camel cricket family thanks to their distinctive huncbacked appearance. The research resulted in a 2014 publication in the scientific journal PeerJ. “Citizen science is a great way to not only get data but also really engage people in science and teach them something about the scientific process,” says Epps.
Nearly a quarter of survey respondents reported camel cricket sightings in their houses. Half of households in the Southeast had seen a camel cricket, and the most common species by far, was the nonnative, ‘Greenhouse' camel cricket. We’ve known the greenhouse camel cricket (D. asynamora) was here since the 1890s, but we had no idea how widespread it had become. I sat down for a telephone interview with Dr. Epps (pictured below) this June, to ask how this cricket became so widespread, and how we failed to notice.
A condensed and edited version of our conversation follows:
Asian ‘Greenhouse’ Camel Crickets are pretty big and visually striking. Why hadn’t we noticed them in before? Why didn’t scientists look at this sooner?
You know, I’m sure lots of people have noticed these crickets, but to know that there’s something unusual about them requires a very specialized knowledge… that there’s this weird Asian species in your house [laughs].
On a broader level, I think it is crazy that we haven’t figured this out before. But scientists often have this blind spot, where we pay more attention to the things we see when we’re outside, and kind of ignore the things that are living with us, right in our homes.
We think of home as the boring zone where nothing happens, but there’s actually some really cool biology going on right under our noses.
So if nobody had noticed this before, why did you? Why did you ask this question?
I actually can’t take the credit myself. The professor that I am a postdoc for [Dr. Robert Dunn] had a friend staying at his house (who is a cricket specialist) and was like, “Oh, you have this weird Asian species in your home, what’s up with that?’
So, I can’t take credit for noticing them [laughs], but they are all over my house. I actually saw the first native species in my house just last night. That was exciting.
These crickets aren’t the fastest or the biggest; they’re not capable of flight, so how did they spread so far, so fast?
With the Asian species, it seems to be following people around. I don’t have specific data on this, but based on what we’ve found it seems to be very associated with houses. I suspect when people move, a little cricket or cricket eggs or something hide out in the [moving] boxes, and spread with the people.
There are many species of native camel crickets, and they’re really widespread too. But in different regions you have really different species; those [native species] don’t really spread too much.
Is that a red flag? Are these foreign ‘Greenhouse’ camel crickets threatening our native species?
We don’t have any data on that. It’s not unlikely considering how abundant they are, but we just don’t know.
We do know that they are really, really abundant in houses, and appear to be way more abundant than the natives in homes. While we don’t really have a lot of data on this Asian species in the wild here in the US, I don’t think it’s more successful [outside of homes] in native, wild habitat.
Do they bite? Is one going to crawl into my bed at night and bite me?
Nope, they’re totally harmless. They get a little bit of a bad reputation, because they have this way of, when they’re scared, just jumping wildly. And they can’t really control their direction very well, so there are lots of scared homeowners who talk about the cricket jumping wildly at them [laughs].
I think they get some enemies from that, but they’re really totally harmless.
And you know, field crickets and house crickets will make the chirping noise, but these are totally silent. They’re just these quiet little guys who are fairly unassuming, who live in the corners and nooks of our houses, and eat a little dead stuff [laughs].
Do you think that the set of species we’re living with is changing, or do you think it’s been this way forever, without our noticing?
Actually, this is so cool! Our broader lab group recently did a study where they looked at insect and arthropod communities in people’s houses here in Raleigh North Carolina, and the crazy thing is that there were a lot of genera and species that also popped up in archaeological digs from places like ancient Egypt.
A lot of the species of insects that were recovered in ancient Egyptian house sites, you also find in New York City homes today. I mean it’s crazy! These insects have been traveling with our species for thousands of years.
Especially things like the flour beetle – insects that live on stored grain and stuff – those have traveled with us all over the world.
We certainly also have new species that are occasionally popping up, like the ‘Greenhouse’ camel cricket for example. So it’s not that all these species have been traveling with us forever, but there’s sort of a core community of home-associated species that is totally widespread across the globe. It’s super cool.
Anything else to say about these little crickets?
Just that they’re kinda neat really. People tend to be scared of them, they’re jumping at you, but so far as we know they’re just these little reasonably innocuous hitchikers.
I mean if they started invading real wild places and were causing some sort of ecological harm, that would be different, but so far as we know now, I think they’re kinda cute.
Born and raised in California, Amy founded Hawkmoth in 2014. She earned her master's at Columbia University, studying the evolution and conservation of coral reef fish in the tropical Indo-Pacific and is now a banana slug, in UC Santa Cruz's Science Communication Program.