Strangers in the Neighborhood

by Carl Strang

In the late summer I started hearing a strange sound at night in my neighborhood:

There were several of these singers scattered up and down the street. Clearly they were some kind of cricket, but this was an unfamiliar sound. I confess that my first reaction was to be affronted. How dare a singing insect start doing something I didn’t recognize in my own neighborhood? I tried turning them into a familiar species, perhaps an odd courtship sound by striped ground crickets? Could there have been a chromosome doubling, altering the sound analogous to the Cope’s vs. gray treefrog? I made the above recording and looked at it in the computer.

Each of the rapid little chirps was composed of two pulses.

I was sure that nothing familiar could have produced this. I found that the sounds were coming from the seams between sidewalk concrete blocks, or around curbs. I was plotting to flush one out but had a stroke of luck. While walking to my mailbox one night, I spotted an unfamiliar cricket out on the street. This had to be one of the strangers, as it was much bigger than a ground cricket yet smaller and paler than field cricket species I knew. He was quick, but after a few missed attempts I was able to pin him against the pavement with my palm. I got him into a container and set up my white chamber for photos.

Viewed from above, the short wings, tan color, and black line across the rear edge of the pronotum stood out.

The overall shape and color pattern seemed to fit the field cricket group.

I had tried to be gentle, and hoped that the loss of his antenna tips was due to combat with a rival rather than my capture.

In the Singing Insects of North America website, it was quick work to identify him as a tropical house cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus. This is a species whose range is a narrow zone around the edge of the Gulf of Mexico and extending west. I couldn’t see any way they could have spread north from there, at least not without my having encountered them before. One of my neighbors must have transported them, possibly as an egg mass in a potted plant.

So, what are the odds that this exotic cricket should turn up in the neighborhood of a singing insect specialist? Should I feel privileged, or special, at such a cosmic coincidence? While I am not in a position to rule that out, it makes more sense to me to interpret this in a different way. It seems more likely that this sort of thing happens a lot. This and other singing insects get transported around, show up in odd places, but are not noticed because people don’t know them. And what wonders have I missed in my own ignorance of other organisms that have appeared under my nose without me noticing them?

The tropical house crickets still were singing at the beginning of October. I imagine that some mated and produced eggs. While I will listen for them next summer, I will be very surprised if any of those eggs survive our northern winter.

Footnote: As a runner myself, I followed the world track championships in Qatar at the end of September into the beginning of October. As I watched coverage of the men’s marathon, held at night because of that country’s tropical heat, I frequently heard a now-familiar sound. A quick internet search turned up the fact that the tropical house cricket is not native to the U.S. but rather to southwest Asia, and has been spread all around the tropical regions of the world.

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