King Crickets aka Parktown Prawns
Monsters, Fiends, Ogres, or Parktown Prawns this regular but seldom welcome visitor to many suburban gardens has been called a varied assortment of names, however, all with one thing in common, none of these terms are ever complementary.
Stories abound about their propensity to attack cats, dogs or even humans at the slightest provocation, squirting black evil smelling liquid for metres at anything that moves or dare approach them.
They have featured prominently on television and radio and only a few years ago the bicentenary of the first description of the "monstrous cricket", a close relation to the Parktown Prawn was celebrated.
This is as far as I can establish the first occasion that such an honour has been accorded to an insect.
These infamous insects have frequently formed an emotional and sizzling topic for discussion on popular radio talk shows. Callers who phone in invariably tell the most horrifying stories of their exploits with these ostensibly repulsive creatures of the night who have often invaded their homes, cupboards, beds and even shoes. If they are to be believed these gargantuan insects-from-hell are virtually indestructible being impervious to all brands of insecticides, paraffin, turpentine as well as blows from an assortment of objects from shoes to rocks. Some callers fervently believe that they have been seeded or at least evolved from some form of alien life from outer space.
In reality they are not nearly as sensational but are members of the insect Order: Orthoptera. This order contains all grasshoppers, katydids and crickets. Parktown Prawns form part of the family of crickets known as Anostostomatidae and are one of a number of at least forty four species of King Crickets as they are more generally known. Their scientific name is Libanasidus vittatus. The pseudonym Parktown Prawn or sometimes Parkhurst Prawn was given them due to their recurrent seasonal appearance in lush Highveld gardens in these areas. Originally, it is suspected, they were introduced from the forest biomes of Mpumalanga. They are slowly but surely also spreading out into the Pretoria and other surrounding areas.
A male Libanasidus vittatus in his burrow.
Although their rather obnoxious defence mechanism of squirting faeces when threatened would lead one to believe otherwise, they are in fact virtually harmless. Like many Orthoptera, however, they can if handled deliver a hefty kick with their spiked hind legs resulting in a nasty scratch or even drawing blood, such wounds are of course always susceptible to infection if left untreated.
They are nocturnal insects, that is they hunt by night, and are drawn to light which is the reason that they often enter houses. During the day they hide in their burrows which they have excavated in moist soil by digging with their forelegs and throwing back the ground with their hindlegs. They are omnivorous and as such eat both plant and animal material. They are voracious eaters of garden slugs and snails and consequently deliver a valuable and beneficial service to gardeners by controlling the snail population. Further to this they survive on rotting plant material and other insects such as cutworms.
The King Cricket in turn is a favoured delicacy of the Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) and any garden infested with Parktown Prawns will usually also be found to be a regular haunt of these large and rowdy birds that in turn keep the cricket population under control.
Left: Spined and clawed hindleg of the Parktown Prawn. Right: Palps, sensory organs about the mouth area.
Libanasidus vittatus often reach the size of 65mm to 70 mm in length. They are reddish in colour with orange legs. The abdomen which is also red/orange is adorned with black bands. The female can be easily recognised by her large scimitar shaped ovipositor, the organ with which eggs are laid. Male Parktown Prawns develop large protruding mandibles (mouth parts) which look very much like tusks. I am unable to determine with any certainty whether they are capable of inflicting a bite or not although one person has told me that a male specimen sunk it's mandibles into his finger.
Scimitar shaped ovipositor of the female, used for laying eggs.
The mandibles of the male.
Some facts about crickets in general
The Anostostomatidae family (of which the Parktown Prawn is a member) is an old one as evidenced by fossil evidence of these crickets dating back to the late Triasic period, more than 200 milion years ago. No doubt many smaller insect eating dinosaurs found a tasty treat in an Anostostomatidae cricket. In general crickets have also played a prominent role in cultural history, in ancient China and Japan, for example, field crickets were kept in special cricket cages in the home as the sound of the cricket's chirping was highly appreciated.
As Bei Ju-Yi, of theTang dynasty wrote:
The Singing cricket chirps throughout the long night, tolling in the cloudy autumn with its rain. Intent on disturbing the gloomy sleepless soul, the cricket moves towards the bed chirp by chirp.
And from John Keats the following extract from On the Grasshopper and the Cricket:
"... The poetry of earth is ceasing never
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket's song, in warmth increasing ever, .."
Article and Photographs Copyright: Lambert Smith, 2006
The monstrous cricket "turns 200" while "badboy" Parktown prawn steals the limelight by Dr Rob Toms
African Insect Life by S.H. Skaife
Evolution of the Insects by Grimaldi, Engel
Field Guide to Insects by Picker, Griffiths, Weaving
© COPYRIGHT Lambert Smith, 2010