A touch of light: Gryllacridids in the Gidyea



Photos © Mike Gillam 

Driving south down Telegraph Terrace I pass by the old gaol, it’s a hot day and the Toyota windows are open. A disturbing smell enters the vehicle cabin; a smell that conjures up unpleasant associations, of late nights and adolescent binge drinking, stepping around malodorous puddles on the footpath outside the pub. The smell of vomit has earned this magnificent tree the common name of stinking wattle.

Acacia georginae (Georgina Gidyea) is closely related to A.cambagei and may only be sub-specifically distinct. As this statement implies, the two species may be difficult to tell apart in those parts of Centralia where they overlap.

Urrenyenkayte is the Arrernte name given to a “small grub found on the urrenyenke [Gidyea] tree.” This ‘grub’ is a mystery to me but perhaps Alice News readers can tell us more.

Gidyea trees are an under-utilised feature in the streetscapes and backyards of Alice Springs. Conveniently, they don’t grow tall enough to block house gutters with leaves, providing serious shade where it’s needed most. I’m reminded of this tree’s presence at particular times of year when the pollen gives off that smell, presumably to attract flies not bees.

During a recent trip up the Sandover (Alyawarre and Anmatyerre country), I revelled in the bird rich woodlands of Gidyea, broad swathes of resplendent coolabah and impressive watercourses such as Waite Creek and the Sandover River. Flocks of Little Corellas dominate the nesting hollows, with Galahs much less common in this region. In the drier country beyond the influence of the red gum drainages, there were scattered kurrajongs looking like they needed a really good drink. Sadder still, the mulga, but that’s another story.

A small stand of magnificent Gidyea perched amongst minor calcrete formations are my favourite memory from the trip. A nearby pool of water helped to explain their impressive size and we stopped to take a closer look.

I was drawn to one tree in particular, its form twisted and honeycombed with hollows. We circled the trees quietly hoping to catch a glimpse of a lizard, such as the robust spiny tailed skinks I’d seen in stands of Gidyea in Arabana country of the Simpson Desert.

Lizards, bats, birds and invertebrates remained hidden and my attention settled on the most gnarled tree. I scrutinised the tree from every possible angle and with my attention diverted to the camera viewfinder, a flurry of activity commenced.

My companion shouted out that a group of three large flying insects had just exited a hollow near my head. Were they watching me the whole time, waiting for a safe moment to move? He pointed out one Gryllacridid (king cricket) in the canopy of a nearby tree and I dug out the flash and moved closer.

The elegant black cricket, with antennae considerably longer than its combined head, body and ovipositor length, remained motionless, and I was able to take some useful frames. This species occurs throughout Centralia’s woodlands where they often shelter under the loose fitting bark of ironwood and mulga.

Others dig vertical burrows in the sand plain deserts and I once photographed an orange and brown striped king cricket in situ using a very long and slender medical lens loaned by friends from the Tokyo Broadcasting Service.

Gryllacridids have a fearsome reputation as insect predators. Measuring about 7 cm (excluding those extreme antennae), the cricket pictured is surely the Darth Vader of Australia’s Gryllacrididae family.

Dr Steve Morton advised: “…the black one you photographed is in the genus Hadrogryllacris. Australia contains one of the world’s richest radiations of the family and is home to several hundred species, most of which remain undescribed. This provides some evidence for a Gondwana origin…”


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: ivory gums and sacred kingfishers

A touch of light: fast food and yellow wings


  1. Gryllacridids are the scariest Orthopterans. Those black eyes just ooze maliciousness. Of course I know I’m anthropomorphising, but I’d rather have a large huntsman run across my face than have a large Gryllacridid land on me.

  2. Mike,
    Do my eyes deceive me?
    That looks as though there is a single antenna projecting from the thorax.

  3. Driving the Plenty towards Boulia late one night over 30 years ago. I pulled off the road, dead tired, rolled out the swag, was asleep straight away.
    Bladder woke me a few hours later, black starry night, magnificent. Then I noticed the smell.
    Very strong, same as I had noticed on Telegraph Terrace near the old gaol, the gidyeas.
    Had a sqiz in the morning, a good stand of them. A strong memory, I can smell them now as I write. Thanks for the memories Mike … and thanks Alice Springs News for Mike’s articles, always educational.
    Gryllacridids, new to me, what splendid creatures they are.

  4. Thanks to readers for their comments and apologies for this late response. As it happens I’ve just returned from the Lake Eyre region and was struck by the magnificence of the gidyeas, especially around Roxby Downs.
    Fabulous suburban street trees, long lived and drought tolerant, much needed shade for our town.
    To Ian and Loie Sharp: it gives me a great sense of satisfaction knowing that I’ve brought to life such a strong olfactory memory.
    Alex Dudley, well known wildlife poet and creator of faunaverse spins a cautionary tale about the hazards of getting cosy with Gryllacridids and Charlie Carter, forever eagle eyed queries the strangely singular antennae.
    You’re quite right Charlie, the individual in the photo had only one very long antenna and a stump on the other side so something fought back, perhaps a duelling Gryllacridid.
    The impression that it emerges from the thorax is an optical illusion caused by my dodgy flash work!
    I should have mentioned the tactile attributes of the Gryllacridid antennae which are waved around when the crickets are hunting, doubtless hoping to elicit a contact response from viable prey that are pounced upon if they move.
    In similar vein, hunting nightjars use the long hairs projecting from either side of their mouth to direct their wide snapping beaks in the dark. Thanks to Alex Nelson for raising this in a recent discussion.


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