Cool Cockroaches

Cockroaches. Just the mention of them is enough to elicit a negative response. Bringing them up in almost any situation often leads to stories of revulsion from the first time someone saw them running across their kitchen floor, or flying directly at them (more often than not touched with a bit of exaggeration). When I tell people that I did research with them and would like to continue doing so I get the same responses from nearly everyone: Why?! They’re so disgusting! Then a story of how disgusted they were when they saw one in their kitchen, or bathroom. It’s a shame really that everyone associates the relatively few pest species, only about 30, with a group that encompasses at least 4,600 species.

Their diversity may not be that impressive as far as insects go, but they certainly put any single group vertebrate species, except possibly fish, to shame in terms of numbers. They range in size from 3mm, Attaphila fungicola which lives with ants, to  8cm, Macropanesthia rhinoceros or the rhinoceros cockroach from Australia. They survive in a diverse array of habitats, there’s a species that’s supposedly at least semi aquatic, some that are specialized for a life in sand dunes, and some that specialize in living on bromeliads in the canopies of rain forests. They also come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. There are the common looking species that everyone associates cockroaches with, but some have horns and are quite chunky, while others are nearly completely flat, a couple species have males equipped with two small bumps on their “heads” that have been noted to glow in the wild. There are brilliant metallic species that resemble rolly pollies, or pill pugs, some bright green species, some even have streaks of brilliant blue!

green bug on a table
Robert Lord Zimlich
brown pill cockroach in a ball
Melvin Yeo
blue cockroach on a rock
David Rentz

The overwhelming majority of research on cockroaches has focused on quite a small percentage, we’ll say .7% and that’s an overestimate, that are regarded as pest species. Just as a side note here: cockroaches tend to be associated with filth, but when they’re found in a home it is usually due to an excess of food waste left around the house that they’re exploiting. They’re just using the resources that are available to them! I guess that is why I decided to focus on cockroaches. I’d like to change how they’re perceived, at least to a few people, and show that they’re more than the gross bug running across your kitchen floor in the middle of the night. As E.O. Wilson once wrote “Let the lowly cockroach crawl, or, better, fly up, to its rightful place in human esteem!”, or at least let’s try not to hate on them too much.

Oh I forgot to write about what my research was actually on… I was aiming to describe the defensive acoustic signals produced by the flat horn hissing cockroach, or Aeluropoda insignis. I’ll get into that more with my next post.

— Elliot

Adventures with Crickets

Yesterday, I went into the cricket room like I normally do to check on my crickets and switch out their boxes for the anthropogenic noise behavior experiment. I didn’t expect to see anything special or out of the ordinary happen with the crickets-except maybe the terrifying amount we now have-but I was in for a surprise during my husbandry routine.

After working with crickets for months, I honestly felt like I had seen everything I would ever have seen happen to a cricket, from a cricket missing a leg leap halfway across the room to a half-molted cricket being devoured by its brothers and sisters. Keeping that in mind while performing the same routine I had repeated for months on end, husbandry had become monotone in a way. There would be days where I would feel like a machine on an assembly line as I passed through each box, replaced and adding in what was necessary for the week to come.

But as I was moving to the second box of crickets, something caught my eye. For part of the experiment, I document the date that the crickets go through their last molt and gain their wings as they reach adulthood. Every now and then I would come across a freshly molted cricket and see its bright white wings and pale brown shell compared to brown-black crickets residing around it. But this time, I saw both in one, wiggling, squirming very slowly. It took me awhile to realize what it was, but I was witnessing a cricket going through its last molt before becoming an adult.

cricket molting

Immediately I pulled my phone out to try to capture pictures of the scene. It was about halfway through its molt when I found it. Head down, it looked like it was struggling to get through that last half of its molt. If not done right, many crickets can lose wings or even legs during this process, impeding their life. Honestly, I thought it was stuck and she was going to be mess up the molting. But nonetheless, she was a trooper and soon pulled through fully emerged 3 minutes later. Once she was done, it she seemed to stare at me for some time, fluttering around like she was proud of what she did before she continued on with the other crickets. Overall, I just found the whole thing to be really interesting and cool.

cricket immediately after molting

The main reason I’m writing about all of this is that I just felt like it’s nice to take a step back from data collection and analysis and actually see what’s happening. I could’ve easily just as well continued on with the husbandry and finished up like a robot over being interested in a process I’ve only ever documented and never witnessed. I guess what I am trying to get at is that while it’s fine to focus on your work, it’s even better to find things to enjoy and be interested in. Hopefully I can keep this in mind during the rest of my experiment.

Thanks for reading my rambling!

– George El-Amir, undergraduate researcher

The Meredith Symposium — Spotlight on Undergraduate Research

On Saturday, October 22nd I was lucky enough to present the research I had been working on in Dr. Parks lab at the Meredith Symposium. The Meredith Symposium is put on by Syracuse University and it focuses on undergraduate research in Chemistry and Biological Sciences. In the first week of October I submitted an abstract to the symposium for my research on the effects of temperature on female preference of male calls in Metrioptera Roeselii katydids. When I submitted my abstract, I had to choose whether I wanted to present my research with a talk, a poster or either one and since I do not like to make decisions I selected the “either one” option. I did not hear back for weeks and I thought for certain that my research had not been selected. Then on October 14, about a week before the Symposium date, I received an email saying that I was selected to be one of the eight speakers at the Symposium. I was extremely excited, but I also felt a lot of pressure because I had never given a professional talk before. Not only did I have to prepare for something that was new to me, I had to do it in less than a week.

The week leading up to the Symposium was a roller coaster of emotions. In the beginning of the week I primarily felt honored and although nervous, prepared for the work that lay ahead of me. I finished my presentation, aside from minor cosmetic touches, by Wednesday and that is when I had my first run through. It was awful. Every comment that I received made me feel as though my presentation was unprofessional and that I was trying to play into a role that was not me. I went home that night and updated my presentation according to the comments I received. By now I was beginning to think that maybe signing up for the symposium was a mistake and that I would just finish it out for the experience, but not in the hopes of winning. Thursday morning I had a second run through with Dr. Parks and other members of the lab. They again gave me many comments on how to better the presentation and again I updated all of my slides. I was as ready as I ever would be for the Symposium. I had to be at the Life Sciences Complex on Saturday morning by 8:50am.

I woke up at 7:30am, put on my uncomfortable business casual shoes, and headed out the door with the hopes of just getting through the day. When I got to the Symposium most of my nerves were instantly calmed. It was a much smaller group than I anticipated and talking with the other presenters I realized I was not the only one who had a few “I can not do this” moments during the week. Dr. Doyle, a professor and researcher at Syracuse University and one of the founders of the symposium, gave the welcoming speech. He talked about how the Symposium was supposed to be a learning experience and how all the undergraduate presenters had already proven their research abilities by having our abstracts selected. I was the first presenter following the lunch break and after getting to know all of the other presenters and hearing Dr. Doyle’s comforting pep talk I was feeling much more confident in my prepared speech. As I watched the other presenters, I realized that all of us did have very interesting and complex research topics and that it would be impossible for the judges to choose us simply based on what we studied. I knew that in order to stand out I would have to be creative with my presentation. I started to think of jokes I could say and ways to make my speech as entertaining as possible. When it was finally my time to present, I was surprisingly not nervous and I went to the front of the lecture hall ready for what was next. Honestly, the whole talk was a blur, but everyone gave me compliments on my presentation so I was feeling good about myself. I still did not think I would win, but I was still proud that I got up in front of so many people and talked about my research.

When the time for awards finally came I was exhausted and read to go home and back to bed. The major prize at the Symposium was awarded to the two best undergraduate speakers and it was $2500 that would go towards expenses for presenting the winning research at a national convention. The first winner was announced, then the second – and it was me. I was very surprised and so extremely proud of myself for not only getting through this presentation but doing very well at it. This moment really made me realize how happy and thankful I am to be a member of Dr. Parks lab. Without their help and guidance I would not have been able to create the presentation that I did and I would not have been able to win such a fantastic prize that will help my career. After I had won, everyone came up to me with their congratulations then slowly people began to leave. Finally, I left the Life Sciences Complex and headed home, straight for a long nap.

— Alexandra Logan

student giving powerpoint presentation on katydids

student in lab experimenting with katydids
Pilot playback trials with the katydids!

Back in business

The business of catching bugs, that is. We officially started up our 2014 insect acoustics field season this week and went on our first bug catching expedition just this morning. We planned on just heading out to a couple of our favorite sites from last year and setting up traps for spring field crickets. We also set out to deploy an acoustic recorder which we will leave up for the next few months to monitor the soundscape. We are lucky we planned ahead (good thinking Jess) and brought some port-a-bugs. We ended up finding 9 male spring field crickets at the very first site, and we weren’t even there for that long! We are getting pretty good at this I think…Hannah actually caught three in one swoop. She is just weirdly awesome like that.

team members in field
traps filled with bugs

We did leave out three pit traps as well, and Leanna and I plan on going back tomorrow morning to see if we caught anything. Hopefully there are crickets in them, and hopefully not much else.

trap in bushes
One of our homemade pit traps. We used a plastic bottle, cut the top off, inserted the cut off part backwards into the bottle, filled it with bait and some leaves for a hiding place, added a “ramp” to the opening, and placed it in prime cricket territory.

Apparently, crickets can get into these traps but have a hard time getting back out. We shall see! We also set up some traps using mason jars placed into holes we dug in the ground.

trap hidden under twigs
Mason jar pit trap. The crickets fall into the jar which is filled with bait (carrots that are on the slimy side) and can’t get back out.

All in all a successful first day. Here’s to an awesome summer filled with the sound of many tiny insects desperately trying to find a girlfriend.

four lab members posing in front of tree
A Parks Lab field trip!

Spotlight on Steve

Who is Steve, you ask? Well Steve is one of our two true katydid nymphs that we have had here in the lab for a few weeks now. He lives in a nice double-decker cage with his buddy Sampson on the windowsill next to my desk where they can get lots of sun. We give them fresh food every other day and mist them with water to hydrate them. Our goal is to make them happy so that they molt. Steve and Sampson are only nymphs, and won’t make noise until they are adults. It’s actually a lot like growing a plant, except even better because you can interact with them (no offense to plants). And since we aren’t sure which life cycle stage they are in, what they look like after a molt will be a surprise.

Yesterday I was a little concerned for Steve. He wasn’t moving much and seemed sluggish. I know my Steve and I knew he was either getting ready to molt or he wasn’t feeling very well…I hoped for the best and left for the night. I came into the lab this morning and when I checked on “the boys”, what did I see? A fresh molt on the bottom of the cage! It looks kind of like a dead spider, minus two legs. I immediately started searching the cage for Steve and Sampson. The cage may not be large, but boy are those katydids camouflaged well! After a minute of searching I realized I was staring right at Steve…and he was huge!!!

green katydid sitting on leaf
Steve the oblong winged katydid!

What I also realized was that he was not a true katydid at all…they are an entirely different shape, more short and stout than long like Steve. After a bit of research I discovered that he is actually an oblong winged katydid. Who knew? Surprises all around! Now we wait and hope he starts calling. Let’s hope Sampson joins him in adulthood soon too!

Crickets and Gladiators

Today was a lesson in patience, perseverance, and thermoregulation.

With the temperatures forecasted into the 90s and the knowledge that crickets chirp more often early in the morning, we left the lab early to beat the heat and catch some crickets.

As a quick aside, our grasshoppers happen to belong to the one Genus of grasshoppers that doesn’t use sound.  At all.  Which means that the first task of today’s collecting adventure was to release them.

We drove to the field where we’ve had good cricket luck, set our grasshoppers free, and started looking.  There was only one chirping male near the roadside, and we have suspicions that it was a cricket who had outsmarted us before.  Naturally, we were determined to catch him.

“Moby Cricket,” as Dana so aptly named him, apparently had other plans.  As before, he advertised his little cricket heart out until we got too close.  Then he stopped.  It turns out that crickets are very sensitive to vibrations in the air—it’s how they detect predators.  And, of course, their first response is to become silent so they’re more difficult to find.  Which works.  Very, very well.  After what seemed like hours of playing this Cat and Mouse game, there were some uprooted plants, a handful of rather colorful words, and three very frustrated field biologists.

Forfeiting this battle to the cricket, we decided to cut our losses and try a different site.

lab member walking through field
Dana stalking Moby Cricket

SU’s South campus had been suggested by a few other ecology folks with research fields down there.  According to our sources, there should have been crickets by the boatload.  Maybe we were in the wrong field, but there was barely a katydid to speak of, much less a cricket.

Desperate to go home with some invertebrate loot, we had a serious brainstorming session.

Crickets prefer locations with water access, so we drove to the pond at Barry Park.  In retrospect, a pond was a bit overkill, but we were willing to try anything.  Although we struck out cricket-wise, we were fortunate enough to hear a new species of katydid hiding in the cattails near the pond, and these guys were LOUD!

Even though their calls are conspicuous, these new katydids (later identified as Gladiator Meadow Katydids) are sneaky.  They hang out on large stems of cattails and other plants, but when they detect something nearby, they not only stop calling but shimmy around to the opposite side of the stem.  This resulted in several instances of, “I know he’s six inches from my face, but I can’t see him!”

grass and twigs with a hidden katydid
There’s a katydid in this picture – bonus points if you find it!

We eventually got the hang of finding them, and after a couple hours of stalking katydids interspersed with shade breaks (the temps were approaching 90 by now, and feeling much hotter), we had 10 of our Gladiators and felt rather pleased with ourselves.

katydids in a bug net
Gladiator meadow katydids, successfully captured!

Total bug count as of July 15: 33

1 adult two-striped grasshopper (just in case he does make sounds), 2 Spring field crickets, 2 True katydids, 2 Bush katydids (unk. spp.), 4 Eastern swordbearers (one of which is now an adult and quite pretty!), 12 Roesel’s katydids, 10 Gladiator meadow katydids, Cicadas soon…?

lab member kissing bug cage
Dana appreciating our newly molted adult Eastern Swordbearer

Lessons learned

Yesterday was another long day of bug hunting and cage cleaning, but like every day on this project it was also a day filled with surprises. Jess, Tricia and I headed out early to try to catch some more male crickets and katydids, and maybe even something new along the way. We reached our new spot and were disappointed to hear nothing. No crickets. No katydids. Jess has a hypothesis that they all stop calling when it is cloudy, and it was definitely cloudy. In fact, before too long we had tostop and wait for a bit while it rained. Luckily it only lasted about 10 minutes and we were ready to go.

lab member hold bug net
Tricia patiently waiting out the rain!

One good thing about the rain? We had much better luck with the crickets after. It seems that maybe crickets come out into the open and move a bit more after the rain, perhaps to find a dry spot. However it works, we found 4 crickets in only a matter of minutes, 2 of which were adult males. After that, we had no more luck in the cricket department, but Jess did find a really cool looking true katydid which was pretty exciting since we haven’t seen any yet. Success!

lab member holding bug cage
Jess with her freshly caught true katydid!

After being unable to locate even a single katydid, we packed up and headed to our other collecting site, Dr. Starmer’s property. We have had luck there all summer so far and yesterday didn’t disappoint. We managed to get 8 new male Roesel’s katydids and Tricia found another true katydid. Success again!

When we got back to the lab however we realized we were in for quite the challenge. Where were we going to put all these bugs?? After quite a bit of hard thinking, we thought we had it all figured out (thought being the key word). First, we decided to paint the male katydids that we already ran experiments on so that we could house them with the new ones and still keep track of them. We tried just going in with the nail polish, and that failed miserably. We then decided maybe Jess could just hold the legs and we could quickly put a small dab of polish on him. Not our best plan…turns out katydids can willingly detach from their legs whenever they find the need. Well this one found the need. Lesson learned.

Now we were down a few more houses, so we decided all the male crickets could just simply live together right? Another bad idea…turns out crickets don’t like each other very much. After finally breaking up the near death match that soon ensued, we decided they should probably be housed separately. Lesson learned.

Now that we were still short on space, we figured perhaps we could use some spare plastic tubs we had and just poke some air holes in the top. Upon doing a quick check later on, we discovered the tubs were no longer clear…the water that we keep the plants in had completely evaporated and condensed on the sides of the tubs! We don’t know for sure, but we are assuming that might be TOO much moisture for the little guys. Apparently more air holes are needed. Lesson learned.

We eventually got everyone situated, but now our counter tops are covered by 4 bug dorms, 2 small hermit crab cages, one large hermit crab cage, and 8 small plastic tubs (with mesh for ventilation of course). We may need to rethink our layout!

Total bug count as of July 11: 43

3 bush katydids, 4 spring field crickets, 12 Roesel’s katydids, 6 migratory grasshoppers, 12 two-striped grasshoppers, 4 Eastern swordbearers, and 2 true katydids. Next up: cicadas…


Another day, another bug

Last I left you we had several species of insects, but as is often the case in science, we wanted more. So last Friday we ventured out into the field again to see what new things we could uncover. After pulling up to a new spot, we immediately heard what the sound we wanted to hear: crickets! Now the hard part came. Every time we came close to where we heard one, it stopped. Waiting it out didn’t work either; we stood still and quiet for 10+ minutes before giving up on one only to have it start calling again as soon as we had walked away. Maddening. They don’t flush out the way grasshoppers and katydids do either. Rather than hopping around when you shuffle forward towards them, they hunker down and crawl away. Since they also blend in so very well they are nearly impossible to see, nonetheless catch! Persistence pays off though. Jess was able to catch one after over two hours of trying AND it was a male. We were pretty plum pleased, albeit grossed out a bit…I mean look at it…

lab member search through field
Me hard at work searching for those crickets!
brown bug in bug cage
One hideous bug…

We also managed to catch a bunch of grasshoppers that we haven’t seen before. Success!The species count for Friday: 1 cricket, 1 unknown katydid, 1 two-striped grasshopper, 6 unknown grasshoppers, and 3 Eastern swordbearers. This brings our total bug count to 31!

bug cages on lab desks
That’s a whole lotta bugs!

We are heading out on Wednesday to see if we can catch more crickets and some new adult male Roesel’s katydids. Should be interesting!



Who knew grasshoppers could be cute??

Green bug with head sticking up over egg carton
Hi. Don’t mind me, I’m just hangin’ out.

Don’t get me wrong, I am still pretty grossed out by bugs, but honestly the grasshoppers aren’t that bad! And apparently, as proven in the above photo, they can be kind of cute! So since my last post we have done some more collecting trips and a lot more research. After only 2 losses (the weird unknown bug and one small katydid), we are now up to: 11 two-striped grasshoppers (3 that are now adults!), 7 Roesel’s katydids (all are now adults!), and 2 unknown green bugs that may or may not be the same as the one that didn’t make it. We still would like at least one more species so we can have a decent comparison. Hopefully on our next trip out (Friday) we can find something new. In the meantime, now that we have some adults (and we know only adults make sound) we can begin our experiments.

Our main problem at the moment? We are having a VERY hard time telling male and female grasshoppers apart. The katydids are easy peasy, but the grasshoppers look pretty darn similar. Since there is conflicting data on whether or not the females even make sounds, we would really like to know…if anyone out there is an expert on grasshopper gender identification, feel free to stop on by!

We have recorders set up, we have bugs making noise and we are taking notes. Stay tuned!

To catch a bug

Well we are officially beginning our venture into bug-dom. I will be the first to admit, I dislike insects. To be frank they gross me out. I really prefer things with spines…but hey, it isn’t really possible for us to bring a right whale into the lab, is it? So we will expand our horizons and our minds and branch out into the world of Orthoptera (a particularly noisy order of insects).

Our goal? To determine if these noisy bugs will shift the frequencies of their calls with varying temperatures. If they do, will there be a point where calls of different species overlap? If so, they would then be competing for acoustic space. In other words, they would have problems hearing other individuals of their own species because of this new conflict. That could be a big problem since many insects in the order Orthoptera use sound to communicate, mainly to find a mate. If they can no longer find a mate, there is a good possibility of that species falling into a decline. Bad news.

So we will venture forth and bring these beasts back to the lab where we will record their noisy calls. But first, we must catch them…not nearly as easy as you might think. Today was round one. We went out to Dr. Tom Starmer’s property, which he was kind enough to let us use. There he has acres of fields and forests. We only needed to trek to the very first field before we found what we were looking for. In fact, we only needed to use the path!

three lab members walking through a grassy path
Searching for bugs while we walk!

We caught as many cricket-like insects as we could of as many different kinds as we could (as far as we could tell anyway). Before long, we had filled our port-a-bugs and were headed back to the lab to sort out our loot!

three lab members moving a bug from a net to a cage
It is a three person job to get a bug from a net to a port-a-bug, trust me!
brown bug in a cage

Today’s totals: 6 Roesel’s katydids, 4 two-striped grasshoppers (we think), and one unknown green bug with really long legs. Now let’s see if we can keep them alive!