March 24, 1999

These Streets Belong to the Pre-Millennium Bug


JOHANNESBURG -- Insect of the Year for the year 2000 may be the millennium bug. But here in the shady gardens (and sometimes the quiet bedrooms) of the northern suburbs, 1999 belongs to the real chitinous-skeletoned thing, the tiny scourge of Johannesburg known as the Parktown prawn.

Modern entomologists like Marcus Byrne say they are delighted that the insect has moved to Parktown. He held a Parktown Prawn at arm's length.   Credit: Joao Silva/Sygma, for The New York Times

Few Americans -- even few New Yorkers, who can keep their cool around cockroaches the size of the villain of "Men in Black" -- have heard of Parkies. They are lucky. Johannesburg is rife with stories of locals who have leapt shrieking from their beds, flung shoes out windows and nearly crashed their cars, all because they found themselves mandible to mandible with a big orange wiggly-antennaed, barbed-leg prawn.

"The males have very large jaws, and the females have big, scimitar-shaped ovipositors, so they're quite fierce-looking," said Caroline Crump, curator of the zoology museum at the University of the Witwatersrand here. "And if they're cornered, they may jump at you. They're just trying to get away, but people think they're attacking."

The prawn's tough hide makes it newspaper- and slipper-resistant. At up to three inches long, it has enough body mass to shake off most household insecticides -- the first shot just makes it more jumpy.

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Worst of all, when threatened, it empties its bowels of a noxious black effluvium that disgusts predators and Parktonians alike.

In truth, Libanasidus vittatus is no prawn, nor is it confined to Parktown, a section of northern Johannesburg. It is a king cricket. But it does avoid poorer neighborhoods, which tend to be dry, preferring the wet, leafy gardens of elegant old mansions.

As a species, it may be 200 million years old, but it celebrates its centenary this year. It was first described in 1899 by the entomologist William Kirby, whose first example still resides at the Natural History Museum in London.

No one is blasť about them. The squeamish scream. The first human words heard by most prawns intrepid enough to explore houses are "Eww, gross!" But entomologists in Pretoria, which is only 40 miles away, "are very jealous that we have them and they don't," said Marcus Byrne, a Johannesburg entomologist.

"As a publicity hook, it's a brilliant animal."

The prawn is the centerpiece of an insect exhibit he and Professor Crump opened at the Johannesburg Zoo recently.

Earlier this year, the insect got its own Web site.

And, "if there's enough demand, we might have a formal birthday party," said Prof. Rob Toms, curator of entomology at the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. "To the best of my knowledge, that would be the first time anybody did that for a bug."

Schoolchildren played with a replica of the Parktown Prawn, a member of the cricket family, during an exhibition at the Johannesburg Zoo. As a species, it may be 200 million years old, but it was first described in 1899 by the entomologist William Kirby. Credit: Joao Silva/Sygma, for The New York Times

Greatness is being thrust upon the lowly Parkie. Johannesburg's rough-rock-and-shock-yak radio station, 94.7 Highveld Stereo, whose sound signature is the beer belch of the host of its "Rude Awakening" morning show, has just adopted it as its billboard icon. Where the British crown employs a lion and a unicorn to guard its coat of arms, 94.7 has two prawns rampant flanking an old microphone.

Curiously, though, it is not a Johannesburg native. Mr. Kirby found his first in Barberton, a small town on the forested lowveld. Johannesburg, up on the flat highveld savannah, was once too hot and dry for them. But trees, lawns and swimming pools have modified the habitat invitingly.

In truth, Professor Crump said, Parktown residents should be grateful that it migrated here. Given their druthers, prawns will eat garden snails all night long rather than hop into the dog dishes where they are often found on wet summer mornings.

She worries that they may be threatened. Another South Africa native that has adapted to urban gardens, the hadeda ibis, enjoys prawn dinners. Fat gray hadedas, named for their raucous "hah-dee-dah" cries, are on the increase and prawns "are getting harder to find each year," Professor Crump said sadly.

Extinction can't come too soon for some people. Jenny Crwys-Williams, a talk show host on Radio 702, occasionally encourages listeners to call in and describe their worst prawn days.

"In our violent society, they've assumed a legendary status," she said. "They just keep coming. You can't stop them."

A disturbing number of her listeners describe moments in which their first realization that they weren't alone in the bathroom was a faint tickling sensation on their bare bottoms.

Ms. Crwys-Williams said her favorite caller was a woman who had been taking a bath with cucumber slices on her eyes. She felt something scratchy on her sponge as she soaped herself, and ran screaming into her garden stark naked. A brave neighbor, hearing the screams, immediately vaulted the garden wall.

Professor Crump said she can top that. A woman who visited her museum "to talk about some other bug," she said, had a daughter who woke up to find one on her pillow, staring at her.

"She screamed, and it was so startled it jumped in her mouth," she said. "When she pulled it out -- you know it has those barbs on its legs -- one of them got stuck. She had to go to hospital."