Wild Thing: Stranger Things
Despite its threatening appearance, the Jerusalem cricket lives a mostly peaceful existence underground.
By Ben Hutchins
Many times, when we see a strange-looking creature, we assume it must be intent on doing us harm. Given the Jerusalem cricket’s menacing appearance and bright coloration, it’s often thought to be venomous. Although it can inflict a painful bite with its powerful jaws, there’s no venom. Our false assumption reflects how little we know about these unusual animals.
In Texas, scattered records of Jerusalem crickets occur through portions of the Trans-Pecos and the Panhandle and as far east as Dallas. Despite their wide range, however, Jerusalem crickets are rarely seen because they spend most of their lives in burrows underground (hence the nicknames niño de la tierra and sand cricket), coming to the surface in the evening and during the night to feed on other insects and particularly plant matter, including potatoes (hence the name potato bug).
Jerusalem crickets are well adapted for their semi-subterranean lifestyle, digging with powerful, armored front legs, and even using their large jaws (mandibles) and big head to aid in the excavation. And what’s up with that strange head? Early Spanish colonists thought that the smooth, bald head and small eyes were reminiscent of a baby’s head, hence the name cara de niño.
The origin of the name Jerusalem cricket is unclear, with explanations ranging from misinterpretations of the Navajo name by Spanish priests to the animal’s resemblance to a cross (you really have to squint for that one). My personal favorite explanation is that the word “Jerusalem” was a 19th century expletive used to express surprise and displeasure (much like any number of words today). You can imagine a startled farmer emitting the word upon flipping a rock or log in the field and unexpectedly coming face to face with a large “cricket” … and the name stuck.
In Texas, we have our own endemic species: the Monahans Jerusalem cricket at Monahans Sandhills State Park. Outside the park, life isn’t always easy for Jerusalem crickets. They are sometimes found drowned in backyard swimming pools, with a darker explanation than a nighttime swim gone wrong. Mind-controlling parasites, called horsehair worms, lay eggs in damp areas. Once hatched, the larvae infect an intermediate host that is later eaten by the cricket. The parasite matures inside the Jerusalem cricket’s body, but must return to water to emerge. Amazingly, the horsehair worm alters the Jerusalem cricket’s behavior, causing it to seek water, jump in and drown. Once the Jerusalem cricket is in the water, the worm erupts from its body to find a mate. Tough demise for an animal that just wants to hang out underground and eat potatoes.
Next time you’re out at night in Jerusalem cricket territory, look around lights, water and potential food sources like leafy vegetation, vegetable matter or food and garbage scraps. If you see this cricket, snap a picture and take a moment to appreciate one of the weirdest of Texas’ invertebrate natives.
Common Name: Jerusalem cricket
Scientific Name: Stenopelmatus fuscus
Habitat: Loose soil under rocks and gravel in valleys or on hillsides in dry climate
Diet: Plant roots, other insects, decaying plant matter and potatoes
Did You Know? Along with their regular diet, females often eat their mates
See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page