Image: Mormon cricket
Michael Thompson  /  USDA
The Mormon cricket isn’t actually a cricket species in the scientific sense, but is more akin to a katydid or grasshopper.
updated 7/21/2007 9:07:02 PM ET 2007-07-22T01:07:02

They're a pest and often a plague on farmers and ranchers. But Daniel Fenn regards the greasy thumb-sized Mormon cricket with fascination, collecting the choicest specimens for study.

Fenn and two other researchers at Brigham Young University have taken a deep look inside the ravenous bug, mapping its gene sequence to figure out what makes the cricket tick.

Legend has it that crickets nearly destroyed the crops of Mormon settlers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, until a swarm of California gulls swooped down to eat them. They're munching this summer on thousands of acres in Utah’s Box Elder County. Nevada regularly deals with them, too.

"Where else should the Mormon cricket be studied than at BYU?" said Michael Whiting, a biology professor at the school owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons. "But more than curiosity, we were interested because this is an important pest species."

The research could lead to gene-swapping to make a less offensive bug, curb reproduction or identify an insecticide that works only on the crickets, said Fenn, a molecular biology major and co-author of a study published in a recent issue of Insect Molecular Biology.

His team collected about 400 crickets from central and southern Utah and selected 55 of the biggest and healthiest specimens for gene slicing.

Dull stuff? Fenn found it fascinating to study a species with wide genetic variation, despite the cricket's disagreeable habits.

"They're pretty vicious swarming in mass numbers you can't begin to count, and they'll eat anything that gets in their path, even each other," he said. "If you put two in a jar, they'll eat each other if there's no other food in sight."

Fenn teamed up with his professor and BYU doctorate student Stephen Cameron in the most detailed look at the Mormon cricket, which is somewhat misnamed. It actually is a flightless katydid or grasshopper cousin.

Fenn believes his work with crickets will give him an edge when applying for medical school.

"A lot of people work in labs and just wash plates, but I have had the opportunity to do hands-on research with many different species," he said.

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