Hi, I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.
It’s almost Halloween so I’d like to tell you about an unusual creature that has given many people a fright. It has a shiny oversized body with long spiny appendages. Dark eyes stare disturbingly from a smooth, bald head. It eats both living and dead matter. And sometimes it engages in cannibalism.
It’s a zombie you may be thinking! But no; this creature is only about 2 inches long. It doesn’t attack humans although it will bite in self defense. And some species in the family will produce a foul-smelling discharge to discourage aggressors.
For baby boomers here’s one final hint—this creature must have been the model for the game “Cootie” popular in the 1940-s through the 1970s. Remember rolling the dice to see what body part to attach to the brightly colored abdomen?
What I’m describing is the Jerusalem cricket which is the common name for any of the 100 or more large, flightless insect species belonging to the genus Stenopelmatus. These insects can be found almost everywhere in the North American west and south into Mexico.
You’ll rarely see a Jerusalem cricket because they are nocturnal and they prefer to stay buried underground or at least hidden under a log or rock. But if–or when–you do run into one, I guarantee that its alien-like appearance combined with its size will stop you in your tracks.
Jerusalem cricket is an odd name for this insect. First because nothing like it is found anywhere near Jerusalem. Secondly, it isn’t a cricket. But it is a relative. One theory about the name is that “Jerusalem!” was a common expletive or swear word in the 19th century. And so when people overturned a rock and saw one of these funny looking creatures, they probably exclaimed “Jerusalem!” in surprise or maybe even shock. And eventually that outburst morphed into its common name.
The Jerusalem cricket has collected some other names across its range. It’s the potato bug in California. Which is also somewhat of a misnomer; it will eat potatoes but no more than any other tuber or plant root.
In Mexico it is called niña de la tierra, or child of the earth. Perhaps this name is based on the fact that its head to body ratio is somewhat baby-like and because the actual head shape is strangely human-like.
If you do happen to see one of these shy, oversized creatures–probably after a spring or fall rain flushes it to the soil’s surface–resist the urge to squash it. Jerusalem crickets are truly good to have around. According to specialist David Weissman, they are a vital part of the ecosystem. Bats, owls, skunks and many other nocturnal animals depend upon their plump bodies for calories. Alive and underground, they help to aerate soils and recycle nutrients.
For more information–and to see a picture of a Jerusalem cricket found on a hillside in the Bear River Range–go to www.wildaboututah.org.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.
Image: Holly Strand, October 12, 2013
Text: Holly Strand
Sources & Additional Reading
Field, Laurence H. 2001. The Biology of Wetas, King Crickets and Their Allies
Cambridge, MA: CABI Publishing http://www.amazon.com/Biology-Wetas-Crickets-their-Allies/dp/0851994083
Weissman, DA, AG Vandergast, N Ueshima. 2008. Jerusalem Crickets (Orthoptera: Stenopelmatidae). In Capinera, JL (editor). Encyclopedia of Entomology. http://www.werc.usgs.gov/ProductDetails.aspx?ID=4393
Weissman, David B. 2005. JERUSALEM! CRICKET? (Orthoptera:Stenopelmatidae: Stenopelmatus);
Origins of a Common Name. American Entomologist. Fall. http://www.entsoc.org/PDF/Pubs/Periodicals/AE/AE-2005/Fall/Musings.pdf [Accessed October17, 2013]
This site has a recording of the sound of a Jerusalem Cricket http://www.sdnhm.org/archive/fieldguide/inverts/sten-fus.html