Welcome to the Jungle: Living With Your Study Species
At the start of the pandemic, working from home became essential for many of us – breaking down the physical separation of work and life and instead creating one very long day at the office. For many research groups, this meant having to make key decisions on what to do with vital animals, plants, and tissue cultures. For me, it meant over a year living with hundreds of bush crickets. Now that the summer has returned and more COVID restrictions have been lifted, the insects recently returned to our lab. Here I share some thoughts on this element of the last year, and what I have learnt about time management in academia.
What Are Bush Crickets?
Bush crickets belong to the suborder Ensifera; alongside the Caelifera (grasshoppers, locusts). The Ensifera includes not just the bush crickets but also crickets, mole crickets, and some other very weird insects. They are one of the most understudied insect groups on the planet, often being confused with crickets or grasshoppers. One common misconception is that bush crickets and crickets produce their characteristic sound with their legs, whereas they actually use modified forewings (tegmina).
They are adapted to many environments, and are heavily omnivorous, eating pretty much anything from pollen and grass to small vertebrates.
At the University of Lincoln, our lab group studies all things bush cricket. In particular, we investigate their hearing and singing capabilities. Thus, we have a large colony of neotropical species from a range of countries.
When lockdown hit the UK in March 2020, we had no choice but to take action on the colonies, and, as the only member of the lab without family/other commitments around, I offered to take them home for the ‘few months’ of lockdown until we returned to normality.
Persuading my housemate to help out, we carried back a large electronic incubator, and many containers full of 5 different bush cricket species and some oddities like mole crickets and grigs (an ancient species of bush cricket). The species which could tolerate slightly lower temperatures were initially set up on a wooden dining table, but later were stacked up on my bookshelf. Running a full tropical incubator over winter wasn’t ideal for the energy bills.
Living With Cannibals
The main problem with rearing large colonies of the bush crickets we study are that they are huge, up to 6 or 7 cm long, and cannibalise. So, if you want 100 of them, that means 100 individual containers, which then of course need to be regularly cleaned to keep the animals healthy. The workload was 2-3 hours every other day, alongside the usual PhD hours that is. Not bad, but my project definitely took a hit from a drop in work ethic.
In addition, when lockdowns started to be lifted in the UK, but we were unable to return the insects, I was still restricted when it came to seeing friends or family, as that would involve a trip over a few days when the insects would not receive care. Lucky for me I was able to head home once or twice while my housemate offered to keep the insects going, but it made making plans much more challenging.
Despite how tiresome the colony maintenance felt at times, it was very fun mostly. Constantly having the animals around meant learning about their behaviour by sitting and watching them when I had a few minutes to spare. Most bush crickets are nocturnal and sing at night, at a vast range of sound frequencies. The largest and noisiest species housed here was the species Mecopoda elongata, which produces a deafening low frequency trill during the night. Luckily a heavy blanket over their cage at night made it much more bearable.
But for other species, most were beyond the range of human hearing (~ 20 kHz) and singing into the extreme ultrasonics. Recording these sounds with a bat portable detector became a fun evening challenge.
Photography also became a fun pastime. With a cheap 50 mm lens I have had around for a while, I researched a technique for putting a camera lens on backwards to get 1:1 macro shots, which worked very well for the bush-crickets! I felt like photography was an enjoyable but productive way to distract myself from PhD work, because ultimately some of these images may end up being used in my thesis.
Keeping The Colonies Going
As well as keeping the insects alive, I also needed to keep them reproducing. Here the lab group faced an ongoing challenge, which was the unknowns of the breeding behaviour of many species. Differences in temperature, humidity, and enclosure substrate can all affect the chances of mating and oviposition (egg laying). For one of our most important model species, reproductive biology and behaviour was barely known, and we got by on annual trips to the field to collect more animals. However, without travel, ensuring successful breeding was (and remains) even more crucial. Thus, many weeks of 2020 were spent looking around the local area for potential plants they may lay their eggs in. Fortunately, after months of trying, I found a grass they were particularly fond of, and am now trying to rebuild the colonies to a better size.
Trying to work on my PhD, in a rather depressing year, and also being exhausted from maintaining these insect colonies, soon took its toll, and despite my enthusiasm for the work, I had a long period where I was very fed up with having the insects around.
Still, the job and the insects have offered some key lessons in academia. Firstly, and most importantly, is the crucial value of having employed full-time lab technicians. They’re an underappreciated bunch that labs depend on even during normal times, let alone during pandemics. Secondly is the importance of separating work from life (where you can…). I see that its not easy to do this in academia, but in a way that’s the fun of it; being passionate enough about a subject to constantly work on it, mentally, or in this case, physically.
For now, the insect colony care continues, but in the lab rather than in my home. However, I do miss the sounds of the jungle.
Charlie Woodrow is a PhD student at the University of Lincoln, UK. He is interested in the evolution of animal communication and ecology, and is currently researching the morphological and functional variation in katydid ears. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieZoology., or read more of his work at his Ecology for the Masses profile.
Title Image Credit: A nymph Pitbull bush cricket, Lirometopum coronatum. (© Charlie Woodrow, CC BY 2.0)