Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Camel
Crickets

 

Susan Post

 

During a recent field trip to Wildcat Bluff in southern Illinois, I found a camel cricket molting—wedged in a crack between towering, sandstone walls. A month later, during a full-moon hike in central Illinois, I watched as a different species of camel cricket consumed an offering of oats I had proffered at the edge of the trail. Curious about both, I decided to learn more.

Camel crickets belong to the insect order Orthoptera and are related to katydids and grasshoppers. They are members of the family Rhaphidophoridae and are found throughout the world, but are most numerous in the United States. About 150 species of camel crickets reside in the United States, with at least 90 species belonging to the genus Ceuthophilus. Several members of this genus occur in Illinois.

While these insects may be common, they are rarely seen, as camel crickets are nocturnal. During the day they hide in caves, animal burrows, tree holes, or under logs and stones. At night they come out to socialize and scavenge on dead insects, moving silently about, guided by their antennae. These crickets are harmless, yet their common names have included stone cricket and devil’s coach horse. In 1918 a writer referred to these crickets as “an ungainly insect with a cringing attitude.”

A camel cricket’s appearance is distinctive; one author described them as “shrimp with big legs.” Yet identification to species is difficult. Upon encountering camel crickets you will notice several characteristics. They have arched or humped backs with overlapping plates that armor their backs (thus the shrimp reference). Their heads are oval and bent downward and backward between their front legs. They have large hind legs and long, sweeping antennae that are as long or longer than their bodies. These are studded with sensory receptors. As they walk along they sweep their antennae ahead of them. Camel crickets spend a lot of time grooming—keeping their legs and antennae clean. To clean their antennae they bend them, pulling each through the mouth, working along their lengths until the tip ends snap free and the antennae pop back into place.

Camel crickets are at least an inch long and are various shades of brown, with darker brown and black markings, depending on the species. While called a cricket, they are not like the familiar field cricket that serenades during the summer. Camel crickets have no wings, nor do they sing. They are deaf to airborne sound, but they can pick up vibrations.

Females lay oblong eggs in groups in the soil during late summer. Depending on the species, the insects will over winter as eggs or as small nymphs. These insects undergo incomplete metamorphosis—egg, nymph, and adult. They will molt seven or eight times before reaching adulthood. The whole cycle takes less than a year. After each molt the newly emerged cricket will eat its cast-off skin.

To see these interesting insects, grab a flashlight or head lamp and head to your favorite woodland trail. Who knows, maybe you will be rewarded with a glimpse of these interesting detritivores.

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