Indigenous igneous insect: Fresh flows a prime habitat for lava crickets

  • A lava cricket.

  • Researchers Justa Heinen-Kay and Marlene Zuk display a bait trap used to collect lava crickets. Courtesy photos

HILO — The fresh lava flows in Puna may appear lifeless and barren.

But to one insect in particular, known as the lava cricket, it’s prime real estate.

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And last year’s Kilauea eruption is providing scientists with an opportunity to study this intrepid insect, believed to be the first creature to colonize lava flows even before plants take root.

In fact, said researcher Justa Heinen-Kay, the more desolate the environment may seem to us humans, the more likely the crickets, known by their scientific name as Caconemobius fori, are to be found.

“They seem to be very opportunistic,” said Heinen-Kay, an evolutionary ecologist with the University of Minnesota.

“They seem reserved to very extreme habitat.”

So what do they live on?

Heinen-Kay said their diet consists of organic material that is blown over the flow fields and falls into the cracks.

“They have this advantage of having a wide-open range and they don’t have any competitors,” she said.

They’re not easy to spot, as they are nocturnal. Nor do they make a chirping sound because they have no wings.

But Heinen-Kay and entomologist Marlene Zuk, also of UM, have already found a handful of crickets on new lava fields this past week as part of an exploratory visit using blue cheese as bait.

That method was used in the late 1960s and ’70s by researcher Francis Howarth, who used rancid raw cheese placed in wine bottles to trap them.

Heinen-Kay said little has been done to study them since.

“We know very little about these crickets,” she said. “They are only found on the Big Island and only on lava flows.”

That’s part of the appeal for the scientists.

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“They’re a big mystery,” Heinen-Kay said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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