Insects and You: An Essential Partnership for Scientific Discovery

Asian camel cricket

Common cricket

Finding a strange insect in your home is usually unwelcome, but what if you could use that discovery to contribute to scientific research? This concept is called “citizen science” and new research from NC State University has citizen scientists play an essential role in looking at the biodiversity of cricket species previously thought non-existent in the eastern United States.

The research entitled “Too big to be noticed: cryptic invasion of Asian camel crickets in North American houses,” showed that Asian camel crickets, previously thought to only exist in greenhouses outside Asia, are actually highly prevalent in the Southeast. Over 90% of photos sent in by homeowners participating in the citizen science project showed a presence of Asian camel crickets, surprising researchers associated with Your Wild Life lab, a citizen science group run by Drs. Rob Dunn and Holly Menninger, professors of biological sciences at NCSU and co-authors on the paper. These Asian camel crickets are skinnier and patterned with stripes, making them easily identifiable from pictures (seen above).

This secret invasion of Asian camel crickets to the Southeast leads to questions about what kind of impact these crickets might be having on the existing ecosystem. While they are definitely in a surprising location, that doesn’t necessarily make them an invasive species. By definition, an invasive species has to be causing harm and there is not yet any evidence that the Asian camel crickets are harming other species. “We don’t know if they are actually outcompeting native species, they may just be better at living in houses while native crickets prefer living outside,” Menninger said.

Luckily for the citizen scientists who led to this interesting discovery they do not bite or pose any threat to humans despite their frightening appearance. With their spiky legs and propensity for devouring each other, they may look nightmare-inducing, but these scavengers may even be helping to clean up basements and garages they are usually found in.

Citizen science projects have a number of advantages over traditional field work, like the large and diverse sample size and access to large numbers of homes. Even more importantly, the community is getting involved. “We want to engage as many people in the process of research as possible and the public is actually helping to create new knowledge, which is exciting!” said Menninger.

The role of citizen science is essential in this and other studies, contributing to the momentum of discovery regarding this newly characterized species and other projects. Currently, the Your Wild Life lab is working on another citizen science project entitled “Arthropods of Our Home.” This takes citizen science to an even greater level with entomologists investigating local homes to assess the biodiversity of other arthropods in addition to the Asian camel cricket that flourish in homes. Menninger said early conclusions from the ongoing study indicate that “regardless of having an exterminator, each home has at least 100 different species of arthropods.” Additionally, despite the assumption that cockroaches and spiders are the most common arthropod houseguests, various species of beetle and flies are more common. Not to mention the parasitic wasps that have specialized to prey on the other arthropods that find your home so inviting. So before you break out that can of Raid, think of the amazing biodiversity right under your nose (no matter how creepy or crawly)!

Original press release: http://news.ncsu.edu/2014/09/epps-camel-crickets-2014/

Excellent photos from the Species Guide in the Camel Cricket project, taken by Piotr Naskrecki

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