Strange Behavior Turns Crickets into Cannibals

"In the high valleys (where there's lots to eat) they are just like most insects. The males call, and the females choose among males. But when protein is scarce, the roles reverse," Lorch says.

In a protein-poor environment, "Males often call once and then hunker down, and the females fight over them. So the males basically are choosing among the females. It's exactly the opposite."

The females are eager to mate, he said, because "the male gives the female a large gift every time they mate," Lorch says. "It looks like a cheese ball. Basically, it's 10 to 20 percent of the male's body weight every time they mate," delivered as spermatophore.

When there's not enough to eat, that's a pretty impressive gift, so the males can have as many females as they want. But that's not why they're called Mormon crickets.

That name goes back to the days when the Mormons were establishing farms and ranches to supply their colonies in Utah. The crickets arrived and began devouring their crops.

"The Mormons thought God sent them as a plague of locusts," Lorch says. "They had a huge problem, but apparently they repented or stopped whatever they were doing wrong, and God sent seagulls to save them from the crickets. That's why if you go to the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City you'll see a monument to the seagull."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has funded most of Lorch's research, has developed poisons to protect vital crops from the crickets, so today's farmers are better prepared than those first Mormon settlers. But that doesn't mean they are home free.

A report out of the University of Wyoming notes that while the crickets can dine on more than 400 species of plants, they relish cultivated crops.

"They feed voraciously on wheat, barley, alfalfa, sweet clover, truck crops and garden vegetables," the report says. So the threat is real.

Nevada alone has estimated that 10 million to 12 million acres will be infested by the end of summer. Some states, including Oregon, have issued warnings to motorists because the goo from squashed crickets can make a highway as slippery as ice.

It's not a pretty picture. But it's not easy being a Mormon cricket.

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