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It might be ugly, but a camel cricket won’t bite you

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I must have lived a very sheltered life.

I never saw a cockroach until we moved into a New York City apartment building. And I never saw a camel cricket until we moved into our present home and found some in our basement.

I have not been able to find any scientific use for camel crickets, but cockroaches surprisingly have been used as research subjects in scientific experiments.

Ernst and Berta Scharrer were a scientific research team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Ernst died tragically in a drowning accident in 1965, but Berta continued working practically until her death at 88 in 1995.

Together they developed the theory of neurosecretion or neuroendocrinology in higher animals, although that theory was already well accepted in insects. Ernst used fish as a research animal and Berta concentrated on insects, particularly cockroaches.

In short, the accepted idea in the 1960s was that endocrine cells such as the Isles of Langerhans — which secrete insulin and were located in the pancreas — secreted hormones, and nerve cells conducted impulses.

Today we are familiar with brain hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, and the growth hormones of the pituitary to name just a few.

I had the pleasure of meeting both Scharrers and still remember the distinctive, sourish, smell of the animal room housing those cockroaches.

So what are these thoroughly unattractive creatures I occasionally see?

Sometimes referred to as “sprickets,” they seem half-spider, half-cricket, although as members of the order Orthoptera, they are indeed more closely related to the much more attractive grasshoppers, crickets and katydids.

Specifically, they are members of the family Rhaphidophoridae (rap-he-doe-fore-a-day — and yes, I was grateful myself for the pronunciation guide) named by English entomologist Francis Walker in an 1869 publication. He had been contracted by the British Museum between 1848 and 1873 to catalog the bulk of their insect collection.

Camel crickets look vaguely like grasshoppers, but they are wingless and therefore cannot make the usual chirping noises. Without chirping, then, how do the male crickets attract a mate? Pheromones are airborne molecules that cause a reaction when sensed by another member of the species. In the case of the camel cricket, a pheromone seems to be secreted from the abdominal area that is attractive to the females.

With their long legs, they are capable of taking long jumps, which can be startling considering that the body can grow to 1.5 inches in length. Basements that are cool, dark and somewhat moist form an attractive environment.

Camel crickets are completely harmless unless they have decided to chew on any of your stored organic materials in the basement, such as paper or fabric. In the wild they are “useful” as a major food source for insectivorous animals such as voles and moles.

In North America there are approximately 150 subspecies in 23 genera. They are, however, found worldwide.

Outdoors, they can be found in cool, damp places such as caves or underneath rocks or leaves, or even in animal burrows. Compost heaps also are attractive because of the availability of large amounts of organic matter they can provide to this omnivorous organism.

Species that live in caves may have reduced or missing eyes.

It is also thought that cave dwellers use their extremely long antennae to feel, sense temperature, and manage their movement in complete darkness.

Considering that we have so many native species, it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that in a recently completed census done in the United States, many of the photographs documented a Japanese species Diestrammena asynamora.

So, assuming that you need — or want — to know the inhabitants of your basement better, what characteristics should you focus on?

The first body part to examine is the tibia, that part of the hind quarters below the drumstick-shaped femur. The native species has large, movable spines that are visible to the naked eye, while the Japanese invader does not. The native is chunkier and has a mottled appearance, while the non-native has distinct bands and is smaller and trimmer.

With this information in hand, it is clear that the occasional “encounters of the unpleasant kind” in my basement is taking place with the Japanese invader.

Although most sources claim that camel crickets jump toward a menacing creature, my experience is that they jump away. Given their hideous appearance, I am thrilled that they want as little to do with me as I want to do with them!

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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